Is There a Link Between Opioids and Suicides Among Older People?

Opioids and Suicides

For many older adults, opioids may be the best option for treating chronic pain.  But, using these substances can come with a tremendous risk of addiction, overdose, and death.  Some people over the age of 65 are unable to tolerate non-opioid drugs due to liver problems, kidney dysfunction, high blood pressure, cardiac issues, or other problems.  Since untreated pain can lead to depression and other physical or mental issues, opioids seem to be the solution.  However, research shows a distinct link between opioids and suicides among older people.  Why does this happen?

Are Older People More Susceptible to Opioids and Suicides?

A recent study of over 38 thousand adults found that people who misuse opioids were 71 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts.  Of those, 50 percent had attempted suicide.  These percentages are higher in adults over the age of 50.  Many physicians continue to prescribe opioids to individuals in this age group regardless.

Older adults often misuse medications unintentionally.  Some struggle with age-related memory problems and get confused about when the next dose is due.  Also, long-term painkiller use can cause dependency or addiction.  Many of these adults have been on the medications for years, and are needing higher doses to get the pain relief they need.

In a study published by the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers found that 25.4 percent of older adults had misused their prescriptions were more likely to have had suicidal thoughts.  Furthermore, about 10 percent had new-onset depression after being on opioids for only a month.  This issue progressed the longer the person stayed on the medication, contributing to the increasing problem of opioids and suicides.

Other Problems Associated with Senior Citizens’ Prescription Drug Use

Although opioids and suicides among senior citizens is a national health crisis, other issues surround this generation of prescription pain pill users.  For instance, studies show that more than 36,000 emergency room visits due to opioid complications involved senior citizens.  Furthermore, there was a 34 percent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations among older adults in a five-year period.

More than 10 million senior citizens filled at least one opioid prescription in 2018.  About 4 million of seniors filled prescriptions for more than four opioids in that same year.  Why should this be a major concern in our country?  Because our seniors are struggling with diminished quality of life and are in danger of physical harm due to opioids.  Here are just a few examples of the consequences:

  • Adverse central nervous system issues – Mild cognitive impairment and sedation result in forgetfulness, falls, and other physical or mental problems.
  • Respiratory depression – This life-threatening complication of opioids can be worse when co-occurring disorders such as emphysema, asthma, or COPD are present.
  • Urinary retention – Many older adults have kidney dysfunction.  Opioids can make it worse.  Uncomfortable swelling of the extremities can result in addition to further damage to the kidneys.

According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health:

In general, the rate at which certain drugs are absorbed can be altered in the elderly because of decreased gastrointestinal transit time and increased gastric pH secondary to use of proton pump inhibitors, H2 receptor antagonist, or antacids.  Properly evaluating and treating pain in all types of elderly patients and clinical scenarios should be the goal of all clinicians.”

Clearly, older adults are struggling with the effects of several medications all at one time.  This puts them at risk for a range of consequences.

Get Help for Addiction at Awakenings Rehabilitation

If you know an older adult who is struggling with prescription drug dependence or addiction, contact us at Awakenings.  The risk of opioids and suicide is only one of the problems these individuals face.  We can help.  Call today.

Sources: – Prescription Opioid and Benzodiazepine Misuse is Associated with Suicidal Ideation in Older Adults – Reports Warn of Growing Senior Opioid Crisis – Opiates and the Elderly: Use and Side Effects


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