More Older Adults Using Opioids to Commit Suicide

Recent findings from a group of American researchers indicate that older adults abuse opioid medications less often than their young-adult counterparts but have significantly higher chances of dying.

Prescription rates for opioid medication have risen sharply in the U.S. since the late 1990s; not coincidentally, the rates for prescription opioid-related fatalities have also risen substantially over the same period of time. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. institutions compared the rates of opioid medication misuse among older adults to the rates found among younger adults. The researchers also compared the mortality rates for older and younger misusers/abusers of prescription opioids.

Opioid Medications

Opioid is the common name for all drugs and medications made from mind-altering compounds that naturally appear in the opium poppy, a plant originally native to certain parts of southwest Asia. Researchers, doctors, public health officials and law enforcement agencies use the same name to broadly describe medications designed to chemically resemble natural opioid substances. The large family of opioid medications in use across America includes substances called hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, oxymorphone, buprenorphine and methadone. Buprenorphine and methadone are used primarily as treatments for people addicted to uncontrolled opioid consumption. Doctors mainly use other opioid medications as treatments for various forms of pain, although prescription opioids also see use in the treatment of serious and persistent coughing and diarrhea.

Prescription Opioid Abuse

Prescription opioid abuse is dangerous because use of opioid medications outside of a medically approved and doctor-supervised context substantially boosts the risks for an opioid overdose or the onset of opioid addiction. Unfortunately, Americans commonly misuse/abuse prescription opioids much more often than they misuse/abuse other prescription substances. In the last year with fully available federal statistics (2013), roughly 4.5 million U.S. adults, teenagers and preteens abused a prescription opioid at least once every 30 days. Slightly more than half of these individuals (53 percent) obtained an opioid medication at no cost from someone they knew with a valid prescription from a doctor. The second most common source of one of these medications was a single doctor writing prescriptions for the person involved in a pattern of misuse/abuse.

Prescription Opioid-Related Death

Prescription opioid-related fatalities are not that uncommon in the U.S. In fact, recent figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that about 46 Americans die from an opioid medication overdose on any given day. This rate of death is inextricably linked to the fact that U.S. doctors write enough opioid prescriptions every year to provide a month’s supply of these medications for every man and woman in the country.

Abuse in Older and Younger Adults

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center and the University of Colorado School of Medicine used a large-scale analysis of 184,136 people to compare the rate of prescription opioid abuse/misuse among adults age 60 and older to the rate found in adults between the ages of 20 and 59. The researchers used data drawn from the same group of people to compare the mortality rates of adults in the older age range and adults in the younger age range. Specific opioid medications under consideration included hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, methadone, fentanyl, buprenorphine, tapentadol and tramadol. The timeframe of the project extended from the beginning of 2006 to the end of 2013.

A total of 1,149 of the study participants died during the timeframe under analysis. The researchers concluded that the participants in the older age group abused/misused opioid medications considerably less often than the participants in the younger age group. However, they also concluded that participants in the older age group were substantially more likely to die than their younger counterparts, regardless of the types of prescription opioids they consumed. Between 2006 and 2013, the trend in opioid-related death among the younger adults reached a peak and then fell to lower levels. However, over the same period of time, the trend in opioid-related death among the older adults rose steadily.

The study’s authors note that much of the increased mortality among older people who abuse/misuse opioid medications is attributable to suicide, not accidental overdose. They express concern about the rate of death in older populations of opioid consumers, especially since the number of people in this age group will increase quite quickly over the next decade.

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