DECATUR, Ga. —As baby boomers approach their golden years, they are embracing wellness and wine — two things that don't always go together.
While a glass of red wine a day may reduce the risk of heart disease, many boomers are drinking a lot more and not realizing they are increasing their potential risks for other serious health problems, ranging from alcohol abuse disorders to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, liver disease, pancreatitis and certain cancers, said Robert Huebner, acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's Division of Treatment and Recovery Research.
"People need to be mindful of the risks associated with risky drinking in the same way this (boomer) generation is more mindful of nutrition in general," he added. "The baby boomer generation is reading labels in the grocery store and counting their cholesterol."
Between 2000 to 2008, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions for people age 50 and older increased by 70 percent, according to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Previous SAMHSA research suggested that the number of older substance abusers may rise to as many as 4.4 million by 2020, up from 1.7 million seniors in 2001.
Most boomers won't become abusers of alcohol or other drugs, but boomers may be at a higher risk of having problems later in life related to excessive drinking or drug use, said Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA's Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality
"There are two key demographic issues," he added. "One is that the baby boomers are the largest cohort in history, and right now, all of the people aged 50-59 are baby boomers. And the other is that the baby boomers were part of a very high drug-use (culture) in general."
Older Americans also have more drinking-related problems due to both the cumulative effect of years of an unhealthy habit and the body and brain being older and having less restorative abilities, said Howard Rankin, a clinical psychologist in Hilton Head, S.C., who has been researching addiction since the 1970s.
In other words, the effects of drinking impact you faster as you age because your body and brain are not able to metabolize the alcohol that you consume as well or to regenerate brain cells, he added.
"I see seniors and retirees doing all sorts of things to preserve their brain function and then drinking a glass of wine or a bottle a night," Rankin said. "That's the worst thing you can do."
As you grow older, you should drink less to stay healthy, but often society gives different cues, he added. "You're retired, you're having a good time now, you don't have to work, so you start drinking at 3 o'clock in the afternoon," Rankin said. "That's the wrong way around."
Are you a risky drinker?
In order to help people figure out whether their drinking levels and patterns could be risky, NIAAA developed the Rethinking Drinking website.
The NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the lead U.S. agency supporting research on the causes, consequences, prevention and treatment of alcohol-related problems. The content of Rethinking Drinking draws largely from the results of major NIAAA population studies and clinical trials.
One reason why people drink more than is healthy is that they don't know what constitutes a standard drink, Huebner said. The answer is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, such as 80-proof spirits.
Men should not drink more than four standard drinks on any day or 14 standard drinks per week, while women should stick to less than three standard drinks on any day or seven per week, according to the NIAAA. An online calculator allows you to enter your favorite cocktail and find out how many standard drinks it includes.
"For example, a margarita at a bar usually equals 1.5 or 2 drinks," Huebner said. "So someone thinks they've had two drinks but actually has had three to four."
The vast majority, 70 percent, of Americans do not drink alcohol at all or drink below the recommended levels, but for those who drink more, realizing that can be surprising, he added. "It can get one's attention — my goodness, I'm outside the norm," he added.
Even if you are mostly a safe drinker, keep in mind that if you have one heavy (more than four standard drinks) drinking day per month, you may have a 20 percent chance of developing an alcohol-use disorder. If you have one per week, that risk rises to 33 percent, and if you have two or more per week, it rockets up to 50 percent, Huebner said.
These statistics are based on an in-depth study of people's health behavior with more than 40,000 participants by the National Institutes of Health, he added.
The Rethinking Drinking website also includes simple suggestions and tools to help people cut back and pace their drinking. For example, limit your drinks to one per hour and drink one nonalcoholic drink between each alcoholic drink, Huebner said.
For people who may be embarrassed refusing a drink, ways to say "no" in a polite but assertive way are also included. "These tips are evidence-based and they work in the same way as if one wants to cut down on calories or food with high-saturated fat," Huebner said.
When you need extra help
If your drinking levels exceed recommended levels, the Rethinking Drinking website has a checklist of symptoms to evaluate if you may have a more serious alcohol-use disorder.
You can also find out about multiple ways to get help in moderating or quitting your drinking, including talking to your own doctor, professional organizations for therapists and other specialists, links to mutual help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a treatment facility locator and information about FDA-approved medications to treat alcoholism.
Some alcohol treatment facilities have groups and programs specifically designed for people over 50. A Sober Way Home, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Prescott, Ariz., started a program specifically for men aged 50-65 after finding that living alongside younger people was distracting them from their recovery, said executive director Pete Stewart.
Older men with alcohol-use disorders tend to have been drinking much longer than younger drinkers, and their drinking may have impacted long-term commitments such as their marriage, family and career, he added. "If you have an unhealthy habit and have been doing it every day for 40 years, think about how difficult it is to change your behavior," Stewart said.
Unfortunately, many people are reluctant to get help because of the shame people associate with the word "alcoholic," he added.
Battling social stigmas and providing a nonjudgmental resources to help drinkers make wise health decisions was the motivation for Rethinking Drinking, Huebner said. "Here are the facts," h e added. "You decide what level of risk you want to live with."