- Binge drinking among middle-aged adults (40-60 years old) is on the rise.
- Alcohol problems affect even the most educated and successful adults.
- Alcohol abuse among mid-career executives is often overlooked and downplayed.
- Acknowledging the need for professional help can be difficult for mature, successful adults.
Drinking and substance use in middle-aged professionals recently made headlines. In a study that gained widespread media attention, nearly 30 percent of middle-aged adults reported having five or more consecutive drinks on a single occasion (the definition of “binge drinking”) at least once in the past two weeks. That means 30 percent of middle-aged Americans binge drink at least twice a month.
This is likely a worrying long-term trend, not just a pandemic blip. Binge drinking among millennials, Gen X, and boomers has also steadily increased in recent years. And it’s not just alcohol. Other substance use, especially marijuana use, has sharply increased in recent years. What's going on?
Higher Education Does Not Make Someone Immune to Alcohol Problems
For all of us, stress, social isolation, and emotional challenges can fuel problem drinking. While lower educational levels among younger adults is associated with more alcohol abuse, the protective effect of education does not hold for middle-aged adults.
A recent study found a clear difference in the backgrounds of younger versus older drinkers. Middle-aged and older problem drinkers often had high levels of education, professional prestige, executive leadership positions, or leadership positions in business.
Stress is a Factor in Problem Drinking
Stress may be one of the most critical factors that drive professionals and executives to “medicate” themselves with alcohol and/or other substances as they shoulder significantly more old responsibilities as compared to younger individuals and others with lower-stress jobs.
Stressors include decisions about layoffs and other actions that have real-life consequences for the people they supervise or employ. High-stakes decisions amplify stress levels. The higher the frequency of difficult decisions, and the more consequential the decisions, the greater the stress on the decision-maker.
Success, Accountability, and Environmental Factors
Many of us have worked hard and long to achieve success. It can be a shock to realize that achieving our goals comes with its own set of mental health challenges.
Suffering from impsoter syndrome is remarkably common, even among people with successful careers. Many top executives privately confess to feeling anxious about whether they truly deserve to maintain their career position, social standing, and reputation. Fear and worry are some of the taxing emotions often hidden underneath the high-powered exterior of successful individuals.
People in positions of power and authority sometimes feel less accountable for their actions since they have the resources to avoid or make many problems disappear. They may not experience the checks and balances that often motivate less privileged individuals to face the unpleasant consequences of substance abuse and other problem behaviors.
Another important factor is simply availability. Busy executives often need to attend lavish dinners and other social events where alcohol flows freely and a whole night of heavy drinking is the norm.
Just About Anyone Can be Prone to Self-Medicating with Alcohol
- The stresses of parenting, dealing with teenagers, and family responsibilities are universal—and often contribute to the factors that promote substance abuse.
- Adapting to retirement, or concerns about retirement, can be very difficult for a professional who is used to leading and being productive.
- Loneliness, which often develops with age, as children move on with their lives or romantic partnerships fracture, can be a factor that encourages drinking.
Finding Treatment that Feels “Right” Can be Difficult for Seasoned Executives
Some young people can more readily admit to their shortcomings than more established professionals. They are likely to have less to lose by admitting they have a problem at stake, are more willing to accept help from a mental health professional, and may feel more able to change.
For educated and successful people striving for success, reaching out for help in a public way can put their reputation and career at risk. A perceived need to silence their drinking problem can lead to closet drinking, feelings of inadequacy, and intensified feelings of isolation. All of these factors tend to strengthen the grip that alcohol has on them.
Getting the “Right” Type of Help
Professionals and executives with alcohol/drug problems need individually tailored (not traditional “one size fits all”) treatment delivered by expert clinicians that addresses their unique challenges. They need discreet treatment delivered in a respectful, compassionate manner that can help them chart a path forward that resolves their problems without disrupting their personal and professional responsibilities. They may need help distinguishing between "problem drinking" and full-blown alcoholism.
You can check how your drinking habits measure up against the Alcohol Use Disorders Test (AUDIT) developed by the World Health Organization, and take the online self-assessment for alcohol use. To find a professional near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
© 2023 Dr. Arnold Washton. All rights reserved.
Veerbeek, M. A., Ten Have, M., van Dorsselaer, S. A., Voshaar, R. C. O., Rhebergen, D., & Willemse, B. M. (2019). Differences in alcohol use between younger and older people: results from a general population study. Drug and alcohol dependence, 202, 18-23.
Gullifor, D. P., Gardner, W. L., Karam, E. P., Noghani, F., & Cogliser, C. C. (2023). The impostor phenomenon at work: A systematic evidence‐based review, conceptual development, and agenda for future research. Journal of Organizational Behavior.