Why do you drink?
Is one reason the cancer-fighting antioxidants or heart-healthy properties of your habitual evening glass of red wine? Or because you’ve heard that fermented food and drink supports the “good bacteria” in our guts? And hasn’t there been some news about how moderate drinking and social time with friends helps us shed stress and live longer?
“I shudder every time I hear those things,” says Carol Colleran, author of Aging and Addiction. Positive health claims make it too easy to slide into, and be blind, to a developing pattern of alcohol abuse, she says.
Two Triggers for Boomers
The particular risks of alcoholism for those over 50 go beyond family, work and financial pressures, as well as beyond self-medicating for aches and pains, Colleran says. There’s often a much deeper issue that triggers the trap of addiction: A sense of lost meaning or purpose in life.
Colleran is a former chemical dependency counselor for the Minnesota-based Hazelden treatment centers and the recently-retired director of Florida’s Hanley Center for Older Adult Recovery. She has listened to many older retirees who are addicted and heard a common theme. “They told me over and over and over, ‘I lost my sense of purpose. Nobody asked me questions anymore,’” says Colleran.
In addicted boomers, she hears the beginnings of that loss. “They say, ‘I’m looking for my sense of purpose,’” Colleran says.
Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer for Hazelden, says people facing a newly empty nest or entering retirement can be at higher risk for alcoholism, not necessarily because of the emotions in those situations, but because a change of routine can be a catalyst.
A Faster Slide After Retirement
“The average length of time from onset of regular alcohol use to alcoholism is about 10 years,” Seppala says. But that changes after retirement, when someone who had a highly structured life or avoided drinking for work or family reasons might suddenly and dramatically change drinking habits. “Alcoholism can rapidly advance in that group,” notes Seppala.
(MORE: Beating Alcohol Addiction in Midlife)
“We usually assume, but can’t prove … that they probably had the genetic risk all along and weren’t really in a situation that allowed it to expose itself,” Seppala adds. “It’s in that group where you might see that they started to drink red wine because of the health benefit and all of a sudden, they’re not just drinking one or two glasses of wine a day.”
The Definition of 'A Drink'
One or two glasses of wine in the evening sounds pretty harmless, right? But if that’s a daily occurrence, especially if you’re a woman, Seppala wants to help you recalibrate your perceptions.
“Let’s say you have two glasses of wine a day,” he says. You’re at 14 a week, “so you’ve doubled what [the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism] is suggesting is low-risk drinking. That’s pretty significant.” (Assess your own risk level by taking the quiz at the NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website.)
No more than three drinks a day and no more than seven a week is what the NIAAA calls low-risk for women of any age and men at or over 65 years old.
And “a drink” is smaller than you think. With wine, it’s five ounces, less than half the 12 ounces a typical can of soda holds. If you’re pouring more than that, or repeatedly topping off your glass, your "one drink" is two or more.
“The downside of that from a medical standpoint has been shown to be much more significant than the upside of the potential health benefits,” Seppala says, naming increased cancer risk, damage to the heart, hypertension and stroke risks and many others, including all kinds of accidents.
“As we age, we get more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, so the same amount is going to cause more intoxication than we would have experienced when we were younger,” Seppala says. And any amount of alcohol kills brain cells. Alcohol-induced dementia is “very common actually, and not discussed much.”
Raise Awareness Before Raising a Toast
The Rethinking Drinking site has a list of tips for drinking less and being more aware of what you do drink. A few to get you started:
- Always measure and count what you drink at home. Away from home, say no thanks if someone offers to top off your partially-empty glass.
- Record what you drink daily and weekly. Add each drink to the tally — on a notepad, on your smartphone, or wherever — before you drink it so you can see when to slow down.
- Plan days of the week when you won’t drink.
- Say a quick, polite, firm "no thanks" when someone offers a drink you feel you shouldn’t have. The longer the offer hangs there unresolved, the more likely you are to give in. There’s a practice module on how to “build your drink refusal skills” on the Rethinking Drinking website.
Denise Logeland is a longtime business writer and editor whose beats have included the health care industry and financing for medical technology start-ups.