A new study finds that during financial hard times, even some older adults may turn to alcohol or cigarettes as a way to cope.
Economic recession, the national debt and possible reductions in Medicare have put many elders in tough economic straits. When researchers evaluated the behavior of more than 2,300 older Americans, they found that some — particularly men and people with less education — were at risk of drinking more if their finances took a hit.
The same correlation was seen when it came to smoking, especially among relatively younger study participants (those who were age 65 at the study’s start).
While the study did not find that financial strain, per se, was the reason for the changed drinking and smoking habits, lead researcher Benjamin A. Shaw, Ph.D., of the State University of New York at Albany, says it is common for people to use alcohol and cigarettes as a way of coping with stress.
“When you have a stressor that’s not very controllable, people may focus on something to help control their emotional response to the stressor,” Shaw said.
And financial woes may be particularly stressful for older adults, he said.
“They are out of the workforce, and they might feel like they have less time to recover or generally have less control over their financial situation,” Shaw said.
The study is found in the current issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The older adults in the study were surveyed periodically between 1992 and 2006, when the world was in stronger financial shape than it is now. That means the ongoing financial crisis, coupled with the aging population, will only increase the number of older adults facing money problems, the researchers said.
In the study, researchers found that 16 percent of study participants reported increasing financial strain over the study period. Three percent reported increases in heavy drinking (more than 30 drinks a month), and 1 percent said they’d started smoking more.
Those odds were higher among older men who were under growing financial strain: they were 30 percent more likely to take up heavy drinking than men who’d remained financially stable.
The findings were similar when the researchers compared older adults with low education levels (less than high school) with their more-educated counterparts.
Paradoxically, older women tended to cut down on drinking when they hit financial hard times — as did those with higher education levels. The reasons for those differences are not clear.
Shaw speculates that older men may tend to have a harder time facing financial woes — because they are used to being the “breadwinner,” for example, or because they tend to have less social support than women do.
It’s also possible that for older generations, drinking and smoking are considered less appropriate responses to stress for women.
Shaw and his research team believe the study should serve as a warning salvo for family members and friends to recognize behavioral changes.
Although older people often keep money difficulties to themselves, family members can be on the lookout for possible problem drinking or increases in smoking.
In addition, Shaw said, human service agencies, and even local health departments, could play a role by setting up programs to help older adults find better ways to deal with the stress of financial difficulties.