High Use of Opioids by Older Adults with COPD

By Pat Anson, Editor

Canadian researchers have found significantly high rates of opioid use among older adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a large study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. Over half of the patients received a new opioid prescription after their COPD diagnosis.

"The new use of opioids was remarkably high among adults with COPD living in the community," said Nicholas Vozoris, MD, a respirologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "The amount of opioid use is concerning given this is an older population, and older adults are more sensitive to narcotic side effects."

The study is based on records for more than 120,000 adults in Ontario age 66 and older with COPD, a progressive lung disease that makes it harder to breathe. COPD causes coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and other symptoms. Most people who have COPD smoke or used to smoke, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Between 2003 and 2012, 70 per cent of the COPD patients who lived in their own home were given a new opioid prescription, while about 55% of those living in long-term care facilities received a new opioid prescription. Many were given multiple opioid prescriptions, early refills, and prescriptions that lasted more than 30 days.

Opioids might be prescribed more frequently among older adults with COPD to treat chronic muscle pain, breathlessness and insomnia.

"Sometimes patients are looking for what they think are quick fixes to chronic pain and chronic breathing problems," said Vozoris. "And physicians sometimes believe that narcotics may be a quick fix to COPD symptoms."

Common side effects of opioids in older adults include falls and fractures, confusion, memory impairment, fatigue, constipation, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. Vozoris says opioids may also negatively affect lung health by reducing breathing rates and volume, which can result in decreased blood oxygen levels and higher carbon dioxide levels.

"This is a population that has chronic lung disease, and this drug class may also adversely affect breathing and lung health in people who already have chronically compromised lungs," he said.

Most of the opioid prescriptions were written by family physicians, usually for pain medications that combine an opioid with acetaminophen.

"Patients and prescribers should reflect on the way narcotics are being used in this older and respiratory-vulnerable population," said Dr. Vozoris. "They should be more careful about when narcotics are used and how they're being used."

A study published in Clinical Interventions in Aging warned about the risk of “polypharmacy” in older adults, who often take multiple medications written by different providers.

“The elderly population is especially challenging when one has to consider all of the pharmacodynamic changes that occur with normal aging. The side effect profile of opiates is similar for all age groups; however the elderly population is at a greater risk for these side effects given their comorbidities and high incidence of polypharmacy. Using opiates appropriately and at the most efficacious dosage for the severity and type of pain becomes crucial in the elderly,” the study said.