I like wine. One of life’s greatest pleasures has been savoring a glass or two of a nicely chilled white, or perhaps Prosecco, at the end of the workday. The mouth-feel, the slight buzz it imparts, the melting away of deadline stress, the ritual – it’s always been an enjoyable way to switch gears.
Now that I’m semi-retired, however, this end-of-day routine doesn’t seem as essential. Or wise. There’s not only less need to mark the transition from work to leisure time – since I’m off the clock most of the time these days – but there’s a slew of health reasons to moderate my alcohol consumption now that I’m well into my sixties.
For starters, I have GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) and booze of any kind exacerbates it. Sure, I could take a daily proton pump inhibitor to tamp down stomach acid production, but prolonged PPI use has been shown to increase the risk of lower bone density. Since I already have osteopenia (a precursor to osteoporosis, which affects nearly five times as many women as men over age 65, according to the CDC), foregoing daily happy hour seems the more prudent option. Sigh.
I’ve also noticed that if I have more than one adult beverage in the evening, it disrupts my sleep. I can fall asleep pretty easily, but I’ll be wide awake in the wee hours. Then I feel crabby, slow and dull-witted the next day, craving carbs and in need of a nap. Is a buzz worth it?
Then there’s all the empty calories, which do my midriff no favors. As a source of sugar, alcohol raises insulin and turns on fat storage, especially around the stomach. Hence the phrase “beer belly.”
We don’t process alcohol like we used to
It’s not just me. Science tells us that our bodies metabolize alcohol differently as we get older, so even relatively small quantities of alcohol can have a negative impact on our functioning. While you may have been able to pound down multiple shots or an entire bottle of wine during happy hour in your twenties, thirties or forties, you’ll likely be on your arse if you try that in your sixties or beyond. What’s more, too much booze can contribute to a host of health issues including high blood pressure, stroke, heart, kidney and liver damage, memory and cognitive issues, and an increased risk of falls.
Plus, for us women, alcoholic beverages of any sort – beer, wine and liquor – increase our risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Compared to women who don’t drink at all, women who have three to five drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer—and that risk goes up another 10% for each additional drink we regularly have each day, according to https://www.breastcancer.org. Since the median age for breast cancer diagnosis is 62, it behooves us baby boomer tipplers to take heed.
Another serious downside to drinking in our golden years is that alcohol doesn’t mix with a lot of medications we may be taking as we get older, putting us at risk of dangerous interactions.
So, what does all this have to do with retirement?
Well, some recent studies reveal troubling findings about drinking in retirement – like how heavier drinking is on the rise in older Americans. The numbers are pretty sobering:
- AARP reported in January of last year that the percentage of U.S. adults 65 and over who drank shot up by 22% between 2001 and 2013 – the biggest jump of any age group.
- Binge drinking, defined as more than five drinks in one sitting for men and four for women at least weekly during the previous 12 months, rose an astounding 65% (58% among women alone).
- According to a 2019 study from NYU, more than ten percent of adults 65 and older are binge drinkers.
Why are so many of us drinking so much in our post-work lives?
Research points to retirement as a potential trigger for problem drinking for several reasons:
- We’re bored, lonely or at loose ends when our days are no longer structured around work.
- We feel like we’ve lost our identity or sense of value and are grieving, and we seek to numb this uncomfortable feeling.
- We feel stressed or anxious in the wake of this major life change and alcohol is a way to self-medicate.
- We get caught up in socializing (at least we did before the pandemic!) that centers on getting together for drinks.
- It’s simply a habit we’ve had all our lives, and since we don’t have to get up in the morning, why not have a(nother) drink?
If I’m being honest, the first and last bullets resonate with me. I’ve realized that my end-of-day routine had become, well, routine. Like Pavlov’s dog, I’d become “conditioned” to reach for a glass of wine at the end of the day. And one glass invariably would lead to more, and, well, hello, 3:00 a.m. and acid reflux.
Pandemic + retirement = A double whammy
The pandemic’s a factor too. According to a report in the journal JAMA Network Open, American adults over 30 say they’re drinking 14% more often during the pandemic. The increase in frequency in drinking among women was even higher, up 17% over last year – with instances of heavy drinking among women (four-plus drinks within a couple of hours) up a whopping 41%.
For retirees, the enforced isolation of the pandemic combined with the stressors of retirement itself can present a double whammy. It underscores the need to be conscious of how we’re handling these stressors. I started to feel a sense of entitlement about drinking – “Hell, we’re in a pandemic, I deserve a drink!” – on way too many days of the week.
How much is too much?
For women, medical experts consider up to one drink a day to be moderate drinking (for men, it’s two a day). Heavy drinking constitutes more than three drinks on any day (four for men). A drink is defined as a five-ounce glass of wine, one beer, or a cocktail with 1.5 ounces of alcohol.
How do you know you have a problem?
The CAGE questionnaire is a widely used screening test to check for possible signs of alcohol dependency. The name is an acronym of the four questions it poses:
- C: Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
- A: Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
- G: Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
- E: Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning (an eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
Asking myself these questions was a good exercise in thinking about why I drink. I related most to C, for many of the health reasons I mentioned earlier. As I enter retirement, I want to enjoy this stage of life for as long as possible, and I figure that cutting back on my alcohol consumption will help me do just that.
So instead of drinking by default on most days, Hubs and I are replacing happy hour with other activities – a game of Scrabble, a walk, a Netflix movie, eating dinner earlier (another plus for my GERD), reading, planning our next vacation when it’s safe to travel again, a jigsaw puzzle (my current obsession!).
Don’t get me wrong – I still like my wine, and will savor a glass or two, usually on the weekend (along with some antacids). But it’s a more mindful choice. I feel more clear-headed (literally and figuratively) as a result. And I’m sleeping much better.
What about you? How do you feel about your alcohol consumption? If you’re retired, has it (and/or the pandemic) had an impact on your drinking habits? Please share your thoughts…