Opioid Use in Older People Increases Risk of Overdose, Suicide and Homicide

Opioid drug misuse is an important cause of premature death. In many countries, opioid using populations are aging; older people frequently have more aches and pains than the young, which increases both the prescription of opioid painkillers and the risk for painkiller misuse and abuse.

In the largest study of opioids users ever undertaken, researchers used the records of 198,247 people in England who had been involved in drug treatment or the criminal justice system between 2005 and 2009. The data recorded 3,974 deaths and their causes during this period. Opioid users were six times more likely to die prematurely than people in the general population were. Furthermore, almost one in ten of these deaths were due to suicide, more than four times the rate in the general population.

The study is the first to record age trends in opioid users’ mortality and the results demonstrate that many health inequalities between users and the general population widen with age. In the 45-64 age group, homicide was 27 times more common than would be expected in the general population. The most common cause of death was drug poisoning and the risk of this increased as users got older. Unfortunately, accidental drug poisoning is common in older people. The body simply does not metabolize substances as efficiently as it once did, and multiple medications add to the problem.

Dr. Tim Millar from the University of Manchester’s Centre for Mental Health and Risk said:

“Crucially, opioid users need to hear this new information on overdose, to emphasize that their risk of overdosing increases as they get older. This group is also one of the most vulnerable to homicide at a rate which is staggeringly higher than in the general population. It is apparent that older users of opioids are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, yet most treatment programs don’t differentiate by age.”