Jan. 14, 2015 -- Many retirees drink too much. Retirement alone doesn't lead to this unhealthy habit, though. Several things do, according to a new review of studies.
Certain aspects of not working anymore might fuel feelings of depression and purposelessness, as well as financial and marital strain -- and that can all contribute to alcohol and substance abuse, according to researcher Peter Bamberger, PhD, of Cornell University's Smithers Institute in Ithaca, N.Y.
Research shows that the conditions under which people retire -- whether they're pushed into it or they plan for it -- have "great bearing on alcohol and drug habits," he says in a statement.
The "worst combination" of factors, he says, involves people who take early retirement from jobs they love because they fear their company will go under. "Among all groups studied, this one exhibited the highest incidence of substance abuse," Bamberger says.
The results of the review are published in the journal Work, Aging and Retirement.
Older adults often lack the skills needed to cope with the sudden vacuum caused by retirement, and that too can play a role in alcohol misuse, Bamberger says. Painful events common to later life -- such as declining health and the death of spouses and friends -- can also factor in.
Retirement can also cause sleep problems, which may trigger or worsen alcohol misuse or abuse.
The commonness of alcohol misuse among older adults is "staggering," Bamberger says in his article. Close to 3 million Americans in their mid-50s and older abuse alcohol, according to estimates -- and that figure that is expected to reach nearly 6 million by 2020.
Alcohol-related health problems accounted for more than $60 billion a year in hospital-related costs in the early 1990s. "With the graying of the population, these figures have likely risen dramatically," Bamberger says.
Doctors can help spot things that might contribute to alcohol misuse in retirement, and that might help prevent retirees from turning to drugs or alcohol, he says.
"Sometimes awareness alone is enough to bring about positive change," he says. "Even short phone calls or brief Internet-based feedback [from doctors] can be so instrumental. The other way of reversing this trend is to provide ways of coping with the stresses of retirement. Retirement groups and mentors are often able to pick up on signs of deterioration before they become a problem."
What about older adults who haven't retired? Research has "yet to fully grasp" the possible alcohol-related effects on people who work well into their late 60s and beyond, Bamberger says.
"The fact that over a third of those 60- to 65-year-olds employed report that their jobs involve significant physical effort, and nearly two-thirds report that their jobs involved a lot of stress, makes it even more pressing for scholars to examine the impact of late-life work on older adults' well-being," he writes.