Nov. 9, 2011 -- Stress can lead people to the bottle as a way of self-medicating, and now a new study finds that older adults, especially men and people with less education, are more likely to drink and smoke when experiencing financial woes.
Researchers at the State University of New York at Albany studied more than 2,300 adults over the age of 65. They found that 16 percent of study participants reported increasing financial problems over the 14-year study period, between 1992 and 2006.
Three percent of the study population reported increases in heavy alcohol consumption and one percent said they upped their smoking habits.
But those numbers increased significantly among men who experienced financial difficulties—they were about 30 percent more likely to begin heavily drinking when compared with men who did not have money problems.
Experts speculated that men may drink more during these times because they feel they've failed as the "breadwinner" and may have less social support than women do.
"Many people believe that the health behaviors of older adults are entrenched – that they are set in their ways," said Benjamin Shaw, lead author of the study and associate professor and chair of health policy, management and behavior in the School of Public Health at University at Albany. "If any change does occur, most people would expect to see a slowing down of activity, which with regard to alcohol and smoking would involve reductions in consumption."
Shaw said older adults are particularly vulnerable because they are usually retired, and may feel like they have less control and less time to recover from a financial setback.
Researchers did see a decline in drinking among older women who fell under financial hardship. Older people with higher education levels also seemed to cut back on alcohol if money problems came into play.
"This is a little bit surprising just because, generally speaking, people with more money are the heaviest drinkers," said David Jernigan, associate professor of health, behavior and science at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "White people making $75,000 or more tend to be the most prevalent population of binge drinkers."
"If they're poor and they drink, they're more likely to be a heavy drinker, which goes along with this study's stress hypothesis," he explained.
Shaw said with an increase in the number of adults facing financial difficulties in the wake of the current financial downturn, "we can probably expect to see more and more older adults misusing alcohol and smoking."
Dr. Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York at St.Luke's-Roosevelt in New York, praised the study methodology, but he also noted a key population that is missing from the group—those who have gotten sober, but then turn back to alcohol during stressful periods.
"Stress can affect people in sobriety, meaning people who used to be heavy drinkers, who may have stopped for 20 or 30 years, and then they fall under tough economic times and they relapse," said Levounis. "That's of great concern."
Substance abuse often goes unrecognized among the older population, said Levounis.
"By the time we catch the illness, it has already progressed to its more severe form," said Levounis. "It's important to intervene early so the person can receive a better chance of addressing the problem."
But, of course, "heavy alcohol use and smoking do little to solve the real root causes of distress in situations of financial difficulty," said Shaw. "These behaviors can also lead to serious health problems. So, on balance, the use of alcohol and smoking to cope with financial strain is problematic."
"People always think that it's just alcohol and they're self-medicating, but the fact of the matter is that heavy alcohol use at any age will shorten life span and has a variety of negative outcomes," said Jernigan.
To avoid turning to the bottle during times of stress, it's important to have access to a social support group.
"The most stressful situations are often those over which we feel the least control," said Shaw. "If we can gain some semblance of control, for instance, through financial planning or revising the household budget to meet new realities, the sense of distress is likely to ebb at least a little bit, but maybe enough to prevent the need for turning to alcohol or smoking as coping devices."
If you are concerned about your own drinking habits, Levounis suggested the "oldest standby"—give yourself a test.
"See if you can go a month without drinking or a week without smoking," he said. "If you cannot meet your own limitations, you might have a problem and might want to consider seeking help."