Consider this scenario: You take a medication for a symptom you’re experiencing. But after a few days or weeks, you develop another symptom, which may be caused by the medication you’re taking. So now you need another medication to help you manage the side effect of the first.
The scenario might sound silly, but it’s a reality for many Americans. And it’s an especially common reality for older adults.
Older adults typically take multiple medications to manage chronic or acute health conditions. The numbers are pretty staggering:
- While those age 65 and older represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 34 percent of prescription medication use and up to 40 percent of over-the-counter medication use.
- Around 25 percent of those between ages 65 and 69 take at least five prescription medications.
- That number jumps to 46 percent of those between ages 70 and 79.
Add to those staggering numbers the fact that many seniors don’t take medications as prescribed — and you have a significant senior health issue.
Senior health & polypharmacy
The issue we’ve described above is called “polypharmacy.” The official definition of polypharmacy is “the simultaneous use of multiple drugs by a single patient, for one or more conditions.”
That describes medication usage among many seniors to a tee. But why is it such a big issue, if doctors are prescribing those medications to treat medical conditions?
Well, the first thing to consider is that many of the medications older adults are taking aren’t prescribed by a doctor. Just like everyone else, seniors are likely to head to the pharmacy to grab an over-the-counter remedy when they’re experiencing a cold, cough or even indigestion.
And that, in itself, can become a problem.
In some cases, the symptoms being treated are side effects of an existing prescription medication. Instead of talking with a doctor about the side effect, many patients self-medicate with an over-the-counter medication to relieve discomfort or other symptoms.
That has a few potential effects. Another medication has been added to the patient’s medication regimen, which:
- Increases the potential for side effects
- Increases the potential for drug/drug interactions
- Often goes unreported to the patient’s doctor and/or pharmacist
Beyond over-the-counter medications, many older adults also see multiple physicians. In some cases, those physicians and specialists may be unaware of the medications prescribed by other doctors.
This can lead to medications being prescribed that duplicate another medication’s purpose, can potentially interact with current medications, or lessen/increase the effectiveness of one or both medications.
And finally, let’s consider the original scenario we presented: Continually adding new medications to a patient’s regimen to alleviate symptoms caused by existing medications. That can add up to a never-ending scenario, one that’s called a “prescribing cascade.”
So, how can we ensure older adults remain safe while getting the medications they need to manage chronic health issues? Read on as we take a look.
Safe medication usage & senior health
We know — the information we just talked about can feel pretty overwhelming. But while there is potential for seniors to take too many medications and experience dangerous side effects, there are also steps we can take to safeguard senior health:
- Keep an eye on all medications. This doesn’t just include prescription meds. It’s also important to talk with your doctor about over-the-counter medications, both oral and topical, as well as vitamins and dietary supplements. Even items as seemingly inconsequential as eye drops should be shared with your doctor so he or she has the total picture about your medication regimen.
- Make sure all doctors and your pharmacist know about all your meds. We just talked about what information to share with your doctor, but it’s important that you’re sharing that info with every doctor you see and your pharmacist. This will ensure they’re aware of your meds and can help avoid potential interactions.
- Know why you’re taking every medication. It can be easy to simply take the medications you’re prescribed without truly understanding their purpose. But it’s important to know what you’re taking and why you’re taking it. This can help you report to your doctor when a medication no longer seems to be necessary — like, for example, if you are no longer experiencing heartburn regularly.
- Share any side effects or new symptoms with your doctor. If you recently began taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication and suddenly are experiencing a new symptom, it may be a side effect of the medication. Talk with your doctor about the symptom and what to do about it.
- Take medications only as directed. Part of safe medication usage is never taking more medication than you’re told to, whether in your doctor’s instructions or on medication packaging. With that said, it’s also important never to discontinue taking a medication without first talking with your doctor.
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