People with Alzheimer’s disease who take opioid painkillers are more likely to develop pneumonia, Finnish researchers report.
The overall odds are 30% higher, especially in the first two months of use, the researchers found. And the risk is highest for those taking strong opioids such as oxycodone or fentanyl.
However, pneumonia risk also rose among Alzheimer’s patients who took milder opioids, according to the team from the University of Eastern Finland.
Why might this be?
Aleksi Hamina, a researcher in the university’s School of Pharmacy, and colleagues explained that opioids can impair the cough reflex, interfere with normal respiratory function, and cause sleepiness and fatigue. All of these factors could increase pneumonia risk, the study authors said.
For their study, the investigators analyzed data collected in 2010 and 2011 from more than 5,600 Alzheimer’s patients in Finland. Patients who used opioids were matched with Alzheimer’s patients who were not prescribed the drugs.
The findings were published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
It is often difficult to assess pain among Alzheimer’s patients due to problems with communication, the researchers explained in a university news release. So if opioid painkillers are prescribed, treatment should be started at a low dose and regularly assessed for both benefit and harm, they advised.