While anyone can be at risk for the harmful effects of opioids, seniors face challenges unique to their population. Besides having an increased risk of death and hospitalization, seniors are also more likely to experience excessive sedation, respiratory depression, vision impairment
, and attention and coordination loss from opioid use.
Older adults and pain
Unfortunately, aging often comes with painful chronic conditions, like arthritis, meaning older adults are at an increased risk of being prescribed opioids. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 4-9% of adults 65 years and older use prescription opioids for pain relief.
Pain management is essential to a person’s overall health and well-being. If left untreated, pain can have negative consequences, like poor sleep and reduced cognitive functioning. It may also lead to mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, and increase the risk of falls, slow rehabilitation, and decrease socialization.
When it comes to older adults, persistent pain is more likely to affect their capacity to perform daily living activities, and may even threaten their ability to live independently due to reduced mobility, poor cognitive function and disability.
Opioid misuse among older adults
The prevalence of opioid misuse is increasing among adults 65 years and older. Opioid misuse occurs when a person uses prescription opioids in a way other than how their doctor prescribed them. A person may misuse opioids by taking them for a longer period of time, more frequently, or in more significant amounts than prescribed.
Opioids can also be misused by taking them without a prescription. This occurs when individuals obtain opioids from friends, family, or off the streets.
Administering opioids differently from how a doctor prescribed them is another standard method of abuse. A person may crush, snort, or inject opioids for a more intense effect.
Misusing opioids is dangerous because it increases the risk of addiction, overdose, and death.
Why can opioids be more dangerous for older adults?
Misuse isn’t the only factor that makes opioids more dangerous; these medications can be more hazardous to seniors at their prescribed dose due to regular age-related changes, like slower metabolisms.
Additionally, older adults are more likely to be prescribed medications that interact adversely with opioids.
Benzodiazepine (also called benzos), for example, is a prescription sedative frequently used to treat insomnia, seizures and anxiety, particularly in older adults. When combined with opioids, benzodiazepine can be increasingly dangerous because both drugs have sedative effects, which can cause overdose death.
Increased cognitive decline and dementia rates
Cognitive decline and dementia are most prevalent among seniors, yet they often go unnoticed. A person with cognitive impairment may struggle to remember taking their medication, resulting in opioid poisoning or overdose.
Increased health conditions and risks
Medical conditions or increased health risks can make it difficult for doctors to find the proper pain management medications for seniors. Seniors with renal insufficiencies, for example, may not be able to properly process opioids, leading to neurotoxicity or respiratory depression.
Other conditions and risks may make it difficult for seniors to tolerate non-opioid pain medications. In these cases, opioids may be the best choice for pain management.
Increases the risk of falling
Falling is a common concern among the older population, as it is the leading cause of injury, premature death and diminished quality of life among adults 65 years and older.
There are a variety of factors that affect a senior’s chances of falling, including the use of prescription opioids.
Opioids can be dangerous for anyone, but older adults are particularly vulnerable to their harmful effects. Increased cases of cognitive decline, dementia rates
, and health conditions and risks can all play a role in how older bodies process opioids. By understanding the risks, medical professionals can make more informed decisions when creating a pain management plan for this sensitive population.