Older Adults Addicted to Opioids More Likely to Die Prematurely
Opioid Use Disorder
Opioid use disorder is a subtype of a larger condition called substance use disorder; the diagnosis specifically addresses people with abuse- or addiction-related issues associated with the consumption of legitimate opioid medications and/or illegal opioid drugs. The American Psychiatric Association developed the diagnostic criteria for this illness (as well as the criteria for substance use disorder in general) in 2013 as part of a large-scale rethinking of the nature of substance abuse and substance addiction. Whereas the scientific and medical communities once believed that abuse and addiction are distinct, easily separated issues, they now believe that these issues are actually deeply interconnected.
As with people affected by any other subtype of substance use disorder, people with opioid use disorder have at least two symptoms and as many as 11 symptoms that point toward one of three things: overlapping problems with abuse and addiction, problems associated only with abuse and problems associated only with addiction. The opioid drug most commonly linked to the presence of the condition is heroin. Opioid medications linked to the presence of opioid use disorder include the prescription painkillers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, fentanyl, hydromorphone and morphine.
Opioids and Fatal Outcomes
Statistically speaking, any person affected by a substance use disorder has higher chances of dying prematurely than a person unaffected by diagnosable substance problems. However, one of the main sources of substance-related death, overdose, can affect any drug or alcohol consumer, whether or not that consumer has diagnosable symptoms of abuse or addiction. Opioid-related overdoses are relatively common occurrences, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. This means that opioid overdose-related deaths also occur relatively frequently. While many people associate opioid overdoses primarily with heroin consumption, people who abuse prescription opioid medications account for most opioid-related overdose episodes, as well as for most opioid overdose-related fatalities. Figures compiled by the CDC for 2012 show that 72 percent of prescription medication overdose fatalities that year stemmed from the consumption of an opioid painkiller.
How Many Older People Die?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two Australian universities, Brown University and two other U.S. institutions and the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol used information drawn from the records of a federal system called the Veteran’s Health Administration National Patient Care Database to assess the mortality rates in people 50 and older who have (or had) diagnosable symptoms of opioid problems. The years under consideration were 2000 to 2011. Using the data recorded during those years, the researchers compared the overall and cause-related death rates for three groups of people: older individuals affected by opioid use disorder, older individuals unaffected by opioid use disorder and individuals under the age of 50 affected by opioid use disorder.
The researchers found that adults 50 and older affected by opioid use disorder generally die more often than their younger counterparts dealing with the condition. They concluded that two factors account for this situation: the continued high rate of substance-related death in older people with opioid problems and the increasing likelihood of non-substance-related problems that have an impact on all aging populations. Compared to their age contemporaries unaffected by opioid use disorder, older adults with the condition have significantly higher rates for fatalities stemming from liver problems, as well as fatalities stemming from exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
The study’s authors believe their findings point toward an ongoing need for the prevention of overdoses in older populations of opioid users, as well as an ongoing need for opioid maintenance therapy designed to curb involvement in uncontrolled opioid consumption. They also call for the establishment of treatment protocols designed specifically to help people age 50 and older affected by diagnosable opioid problems.