Opioid Use May Increase Suicide Risk in Older Adults

A new study suggests that older adults who abuse opioids are at higher risk for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. Opioid addiction is a nationwide epidemic that has caused thousands of overdose deaths in recent years, but opioid-related suicides are not always included in those death counts. This new finding could encourage family members and healthcare providers to intervene earlier when seniors start exhibiting signs of opioid abuse.

Increased Sensitivity to Pain and Opioid-Related Suicide

Opioid Use

Increased pain sensitivity is the leading cause of opioid-related suicides in older adults.

The suicide death rate associated with opioid overdoses in the U.S. increased from 2.2% to 4.4% between 1999 and 2010. The new study, which was published in the latest issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, says opioid-related suicides among the elderly are mostly driven by increased sensitivity to pain. Increased pain sensitivity is a common side effect of opioid dependence and addiction, and occurs when people use too-high doses of opioids.

Study authors examined opioid consumption and physical pain levels in a number of older adults with varying mental health statuses. One group had expressed suicidal ideation or had a history of suicidal attempts, another group suffered from depression, and the third group was comprised of seniors in good psychological health who suffered from neither depression or suicidal ideation. When comparing all groups, it was found that the majority of those who experienced the highest levels of physical pain and who abused opioids fell into the suicidal ideation group.

Why Do Seniors Abuse Opioids?

Opioid abuse among older adults has become more widespread in recent years. SAMHSA predicts that the number of elderly Americans who abuse opioids will double from 1.2% to 2.4% between 2004 and 2020. A recent Medicare analysis found that in 2016, more than 500,000 beneficiaries used opioid doses that were far higher than the manufacturer’s recommended amount.

Older adults commonly experience health problems that cause chronic pain and that are often treated with opioids. Older adults also face different triggers than the younger population that make them more prone to drug abuse and substance use disorders — including retirement, death of a spouse, and loss of income. Some seniors even become addicted to painkillers unintentionally due to reasons such as forgetting when they took their last dose, and incorrectly reading prescription labels on pill bottles.

Spotting Signs of Opioid Abuse in the Elderly

If you have an elderly family member who uses opioids, help your loved one avoid opioid abuse and the risk for suicide by making sure they use their medications as directed. Misusing painkillers increases the risk for physical dependence, addiction, and an overdose.

Here are common signs of opioid abuse among older adults:

  • Their pain levels are higher than usual.
  • They suffer a wide range of health problems that require multiple prescriptions.
  • They visit several different doctors to obtain multiple opioid prescriptions.
  • They frequently lose their opioids and need replacements.
  • They ask their doctors for opioid prescriptions without considering alternative treatments.
  • Their personal hygiene and appearance is on the decline.
  • They ask for refills early before their other prescriptions run out.

Getting help for opioid use disorder may help resolve problems with increased pain sensitivity caused by opioid abuse, and can drastically lower your loved one’s risk for suicidal ideation and an overdose. Opioid detox treatments such as a medical detox and medication-assisted treatment can be made comfortable and pain-free, and can help your elderly loved one get clean with few risks and complications.

If you or a loved one needs help recovering from opioid use disorder, call our 24/7 confidential helpline at 866-351-3840(Who Answers?) . Our experienced addiction counselors will discuss all your treatment options, and help you find the nearest opiate detox center.

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