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Study Finds Third of Cancer Patients on Opioids Are Confused
Date:3/3/2011

By Maureen Salamon
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, March 3 (HealthDay News) -- About a third of cancer patients taking opioid painkillers experience cognitive problems such as confusion, disorientation and forgetfulness, a new study finds.

Research analyzing 1,915 cancer patients from 17 health-care centers around Europe indicated that 32.9 percent on high-strength opioid drugs such as morphine scored lower on observer-rated mental tests measuring orientation to time and place, attention and word recall, among other skills.

Patients with lung cancer were nearly 50 percent more likely to experience cognitive problems, which researchers attributed to the symptom load involved in their diagnosis. But study author Geana P. Kurita cautioned that the association between opioid use and poor mental function does not prove that painkillers cause the problem.

"The design allows us to analyze the potential factors that can interfere with cognitive function, but not definite causes or specific doses of opioids," said Kurita, a researcher at National Hospital, Copenhagen University, in Denmark. "However, the results may indicate that cognitive dysfunction worsens with higher doses of opioids. Being aware of factors . . . [can] enable clinicians to improve therapeutic planning."

The study was published online Feb. 28 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Between 10 percent and 90 percent of patients with advanced cancer suffer from cognitive dysfunction, the study noted, which may or may not be related to their disease or treatment. Such mental deterioration impacts patients and their families, making it difficult to make treatment decisions, maintain relationships and perform basic daily activities, Kurita said.

"It certainly can have a profound influence on patients' quality of life," said Dr. R. Sean Morrison, director of the National Palliative Care Research Center and a professor of palliative care
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