Self-Medicating In Later Life
28 May 2019
Today, middle aged is so much more than numbers. It represents a time of drastic change in people’s circumstances, outlook and behaviour.
Recent studies and a heap of LifeSearch data point at today's 40s and 50s as living life with more abandon, vim and vigour than youngsters. And on first glance it’s brilliant.
The reasons make sense. Generally speaking, this group - which advertisers call Generation X - is more financially stable. And as the nest starts to empty, health issues creep in and the generation above – this group's parents – begin to fade, there may be a perfect storm of justification, opportunity and cash to go off and ride life’s rollercoaster.
According to LifeSearch data, this age group is more likely to travel than any other. Meanwhile, 60% of 45-54 year olds say they’d urge their 21-year-old self to enjoy life more, and 43% to expand their horizons. Around a quarter of this lot want to grab their younger self by the shoulders, shake them hard and tell them to take more risks.
Conversely, fewer 45-54 year olds worry about wider issues, such as the environment (9%), and planning for the future (14%) than any other demographic.
Typically, by now the roles of breadwinner, guardian, and bank (of mum and dad) are easing. There's time and space for a bit of well-deserved indulgence and ticking overdue items off a lengthy bucketlist. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, older folks in Australia call this phase of life SKI-ing, or Spending Kids’ Inheritance.
Whatever else is powering the change in outlook for 45-54 year olds, the data holds a few surprises.
Despite, having more spare cash than other age groups, relatively few in Gen X actually have a robust financial safety net. LifeSearch data - compiled for our Let’s Start Talking report - found that only a quarter of 45-54 year olds have either life insurance cover or a Will. In fact, one third have absolutely no financial contingency plans or provisions in place for when they die.
But the alarm bells aren’t just financial. This is also an age when damaging behaviours either creep in or catch up. New LifeSearch research shows that this lot aren’t strangers to self-medicating or coping mechanisms.
Nearly two in five (38%) of 45-54 year olds said they have used alcohol to self-medicate, either now or in the past. About the same (37%) number said they’ve used shopping for the same reason.
One in five (25%) said they have used over-the-counter meds to self-medicate and even more (27%) say that say they've used sex.
An alarming 46% of 45-54 year olds say they have used over or under eating as a means of self-medicating.
While we don’t want to overstate what might be very human ways to cope through trying periods of life, over one in three (35%) 45-54 year olds told LifeSearch that their self-medicating became a "minor problem". And over 12% told us it led to "a serious problem". That’s one in eight people.
LifeSearch data largely correlates with more general UK trends. When talking problem behaviours in the UK, alcohol is an easy place to start - and women 45-54 now report more liver issues than they do heart problems. In men, too, after years of heart disease as the number one, liver issues are – for the first time ever – just as likely.
Interestingly, STDs among 50 year olds have seen a 38% rise in the last ten years and gambling rates have shot up 3.6% in the last year alone.
In 2017, 30% of all UK obesity-related hospital admissions involved 45-54 year olds - far more than any other age-group.
Responding to LifeSearch questions, 30% of this age group say they use - or have used - such coping mechanisms to regain a sense of control over their mental health.
And a report by the Office of National Statistics found that loneliness - and all that comes with it - is a major problem for precisely this age-group. Some one in seven people, 45-54, are said to struggle with loneliness.
This in turn might explain the adoption of other behaviours - like an increase in social media use. One in four (74%) 45-54 year olds now stay close to social media and that may be causing a palpable FOMO.
Psychologists say that online envy could be spurring on a relentless need to get stuck in to life. If packing in more life was easing stress and contributing to joy then there’d be no issue - but ONS data ranks 45-54 year olds at the top of the list for stress, and bottom of the pile for happiness.
Whether it’s eating, drinking, dating, spending or going OTT on life, if we infer that 45-54s are self-medicating - or indeed overindulging - through the stresses, strains and psychology of a major transition in life, then it’s a flag worth raising.
It might work in the short term but if it puts one in eight on the road to “serious” problems - and accelerates the onset of poor health in many more - then this is an age to be hyper-aware of one’s behaviour.
The same goes for anyone, but in this case 45-54 year olds: when the good times seem out of reach, more isn’t necessarily the answer, unless it’s more talking to trusted others about what’s really going on.
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