Study: Elderly use alcohol, tobacco to cope with stress

A long-running University at Albany study has found that older men sometimes turn to alcohol or ciga

A long-running University at Albany study has found that older men sometimes turn to alcohol or cigarettes as they deal with financial strain.

The study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, found that people with less education were also more likely to drink and smoke if their finances take a hit.

The study surveyed more than 2,300 adults, all of whom were age 65 when the study began and were surveyed six times between 1992 and 2006 — before the recession.

Benjamin Shaw, an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University at Albany, said the ongoing financial crisis makes it likely that the number of older adults dealing with money problems has grown since surveying concluded five years ago.

“There’s more stress now,” said Shaw, the lead researcher of the study.

Sixteen percent of study participants said their financial strain increased over the study period; 3 percent reported increases in heavy drinking — defined as more than 30 drinks a month — and 1 percent said they’d started smoking more.

The increases were much greater for men.

According to the study, men under financial strain were 30 percent more likely to engage in heavy drinking than older men who’d remained financially stable. Women, on the other hand, were more likely to cut down on drinking when under financial strain, often by as much as 20 percent.

Researchers found a similar pattern when comparing older adults with low education levels — both men and women — with their more educated peers. Adults with higher education levels were more likely to cut back on drinking when under financial duress, but adults with lower education levels — less than high school — were likely to drink more, according to the study.

Shaw said that one advantage of doing a study that takes place over a long period of time is that researchers don’t have to compare the behavior of heavy drinkers and smokers to a control group of individuals who don’t engage in those behaviors. Rather, they can look at how the behavior of individuals changes over time. One encouraging finding, he said, is that heavy drinkers and smokers who saw their financial troubles lessen also cut back on drinking and smoking.

“You could conclude that when the financial strain declined, the use of substances also declined,” Shaw said. “Across time, we saw more instances of decreasing strain than increasing. There’s sort of this perception that older adults are entrenched in their ways and don’t really change their behaviors, but that’s not really true.”

Shaw said that it’s unclear why women are less likely to drink and smoke heavily in response to financial stress. But he suggested they have stronger support networks than men, and that these networks help them deal with stress in healthier ways.

Dr. William Rockwood co-founded Senior Hope, an Albany-based drug and alcohol treatment program that focuses solely on adults ages 50 and older, with his wife Adrienne in 2002. He said his clients seldom mention financial stress when they seek treatment.

“I’ve not heard [financial stress] cited as a major reason,” Rockwood said.

Rockwood said that two-thirds of Senior Hope’s clients are “early onset,” meaning they drank or used drugs at a much earlier age.

“In their earlier years, they were social drinkers, and that slowly changed,” he said.

Many clients, he said, develop problems after they retire, especially if they lack a hobby or interest to fill the void once occupied by work. Others run into trouble when a spouse dies.

Seventy-three percent of Senior Hope’s clients are battling alcoholism, according to Rockwood. Marijuana is the second biggest problem, followed by cocaine and heroin. About 4 percent of the organization’s clients are addicted to painkillers.

Shaw said the study’s findings do not prove that financial strain was the reason people began drinking and smoking more. But he said it is well known that some people use alcohol and cigarettes as a way of coping with stress.

Shaw said that helping older adults find healthier ways to cope with stress is a goal.

“Can we help people cope more effectively with stress, so that they don’t have to turn to maladaptive techniques?” he said. Drinking and smoking “are not the best way to cope with stress.”

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