Retirement, Social Support, and Drinking Behavior: A Cohort Analysis of Males with a Baseline History of Problem Drinking

Article excerpt

Although previous research examining drinking behaviors among older adults suggests that significant life events are likely to have their strongest alcohol-related effects among those with a history of heavy or problematic drinking, to date researchers have not directly examined the association between such events and the drinking behavior of such individuals. Consequently, using longitudinal data, we examine the link between retirement as a significant life event and the severity of problem drinking behavior of retirement-eligible males employed in blue-collar occupations and having a history of problem drinking. We find that while retirement had no significant impact on the problem drinking behavior of a control sample of 236 retirement-eligible blue-collar males with no history of problem drinking, retirement was associated with a net decline in the severity of drinking problems among those 71 retirement-eligible blue-collar males with a history of problem drinking. Much of this effect is explained by the consolidation of the latters' retirement-related social networks, suggesting that for those with a problem drinking history, retirement may provide a kind of "relief" from permissive drinking environments potentially encouraging problem drinking behaviors.


Problem drinking poses serious health risks among older Americans, affecting up to 17% of adults aged 60 or older (over 21% of males 50 and older) (Blow, 1998) and costing the economy over $60 billion per year in the cost of alcohol-related hospitalizations alone (Blow, Barry, & Fuller, 2002; Schonfeld & Dupree, 1995). Although a range of biological, cognitive, social, and psychiatric factors are linked to the precipitation and exacerbation of drinking problems among the elderly (King, Van Hasselt, Segal, & Hersen, 1994), in recent years studies have focused increasingly on the role of retirement in the onset and exacerbation of drinking problems among older Americans (Bacharach, Bamberger, Sonnenstuhl, & Vashdi, 2004). Most of these studies have been grounded on the assumption that retirement is a stressful life event and generally dysphoric experience which serves as "an invitation to increased alcohol consumption or abuse" (Ekerdt, De Labry, Glynn, & Davis, 1989, p. 347). To date, however, the results of these studies have been largely inconclusive, with some studies finding a positive association between retirement and problematic drinking behavior among older individuals (Ekerdt et al., 1989; Perreira & Sloan, 2001), others finding retirement to be associated with fewer drinking problems and lower levels of alcohol consumption (Gallo, Bradley, Siegel, & Kasl, 2001; Neve, Lemmens, & Drop, 2000; Roman & Johnson, 1996), and still others finding no direct impact on problem drinking (Bacharach et al., 2004).

One explanation for these inconclusive findings is that the degree to which an association is found between retirement and drinking may very much depend on the composition of the sample under investigation, and in particular, the degree to which the sample is composed of individuals with a baseline history of heavy or problematic drinking. More specifically, a number of studies suggest that for the vast majority of older adults who either consume alcohol moderately or abstain altogether, drinking behavior remains relatively stable into more advanced ages, with most of the variance in drinking behavior over time being limited to those older adults having a baseline history of heavy or problem drinking (Atkinson, Toison, & Turner, 1990; Liberto, Oslin, & Ruskin, 1992). This would suggest that to the extent that retirement has a salient influence on drinking behavior, these effects may be most manifest among those having a baseline history of drinking problems. Nevertheless, to date, no study has directly examined the link between retirement and the drinking behavior of this unique group of older adults. …