The Effects of Opioids on Cognition in Older Adults With Cancer and Chronic Noncancer Pain: A Systematic Review



      Opioids are prescribed to manage moderate-to-severe pain and can be used with older adults; however, they may lead to several adverse effects, including cognitive impairment.


      To identify, appraise, and synthesize evidence on the impact of opioids on cognition in older adults with cancer/chronic noncancer pain, and screening tools/neuropsychological assessments used to detect opioid-induced cognitive impairment.


      A systematic literature review following the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Protocols (international prospective register of systematic reviews registration: CRD42018092943). MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Cochrane Library, and Web of Science were searched up to December 2018. Randomized controlled trials, quasi-experimental studies, and observational studies of adults aged 65 years and older with cancer/chronic noncancer pain taking opioids were included. A narrative synthesis was conducted.


      From 4036 records, 10 met inclusion criteria. Five studies used one screening tool, and five studies used a range of neuropsychological assessments; assessing 14 cognitive domains. Most studies demonstrated no effect of opioid use on cognitive domains, whereas four studies showed mixed effects. In particular, attention, language, orientation, psychomotor function, and verbal working/delayed episodic memory were worsened. Changes to cognitive function were predominantly observed in studies with higher mean doses of opioids (120–190.7mg oral morphine equivalent daily dose).


      Both improvements and impairments to cognition were observed in studies with higher mean opioid doses. In clinical practice, a brief screening tool assessing attention, language, orientation, psychomotor function, and verbal working/delayed episodic memory may be beneficial to detect worsening cognition in older adults with chronic pain using opioids.

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