The effect of opioids on the cognitive function of older adults: Results from the Personality and Total Health through life study

Malinee Neelamegam, Janice Zgibor, Henian Chen, Kathleen O'rourke, Chighaf Bakour, Lakshminarayan Rajaram, Kaarin J. Anstey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Background: Chronic pain, a common complaint among older adults, affects physical and mental well-being. While opioid use for pain management has increased over the years, pain management in older adults remains challenging, due to potential severe adverse effects of opioids in this population. Objective: We examined the association between opioid use, and changes in cognitive function of older adults. Design: Prospective study. Setting: Community dwelling older adults. Subjects: Study population consisted of 2,222 individuals aged 65-69 years at baseline from the Personality and Total Health Through Life Study in Australia. Methods: Medication data were obtained from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Cognitive measures were obtained from neuropsychological battery assessment. Opioid exposure was quantified as Total Morphine Equivalent Dose (MED). The association between change in cognitive function between Wave 2 and Wave 3, and cumulative opioid use was assessed through generalized linear models. Results: Cumulative opioid exposure exceeding total MED of 2,940 was significantly associated with poorer performance in the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE). Compared with those not on opioids, individuals exposed to opioids resulting in cumulative total MED of greater than 2,940 had significantly lower scores in the MMSE (Model 1: β =.0.34, Model 2: β =.0.35 and Model 3: β =.0.39, P < 0.01). Performance in other cognitive assessments was not associated with opioid use. Conclusion: Prolonged opioid use in older adults can affect cognitive function, further encouraging the need for alternative pain management strategies in this population. Pain management options should not adversely affect healthy ageing trajectories and cognitive health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1699-1708
Number of pages10
JournalAge and Ageing
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2021


  • cognition
  • cognitive ageing
  • older people
  • opioid
  • opioids
  • pain


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