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Are Seniors Over-Medicated?


Medications save lives and play an important role in managing various health conditions. However, they are often overprescribed, particularly for senior citizens. Polypharmacy – the simultaneous use of multiple drugs by a single patient – is a serious and growing problem among older adults in the U.S.

The Nation’s Other Drug Problem

As reported by PBS News Hour, a growing number of elderly patients in the U.S. are taking multiple medications to treat chronic health conditions. This practice of polypharmacy increases the risk of drug interactions and serious side effects among older people.

Drugs may be prescribed by different healthcare specialists who fail to communicate with each other. If the patient is hospitalized, the physician making the rounds may add to the mix of medications, in some cases prescribing unsuitable or unnecessary drugs.

Senior citizens account for approximately 35 percent of all hospital stays. In more than half of those hospital stays, drug-related complications occur, which can increase a stay in the hospital by three days on average. Adverse drug events, which may involve the wrong dosage or the wrong prescription, increase healthcare costs annually by approximately $3.5 billion.

How Over-Medication Affects Seniors

Polypharmacy occurs most frequently among patients ages 65 and older. Approximately one-fifth of these older adults take 10 or more medications a week.

A dosage considered safe for a younger patient can be toxic for a senior citizen, because older people absorb, metabolize, and eliminate these drugs more slowly. Of an estimated 1.5 million adverse drug events each year, thousands of which are fatal, approximately one-third occur among senior citizens.

It reported 42 percent of serious, life-threating, or fatal adverse drug events are preventable. Doctors often mistake the symptoms for worsening of a disease. These symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Memory lapses
  • Swelling
  • Other ailments

Mistaking the symptoms of adverse drug events can lead to a cascade of additional prescriptions. Adding more drugs to the mix exacerbates the problems, when the real solution is to reduce the number of medications the patient is taking.

Visiting Multiple Physicians Can Contribute to Polypharmacy

As reported in the NBC News article, when patients see various doctors, it can contribute to polypharmacy and drug interactions. The article states that, among patients with serious chronic health conditions:

  • 81% see two or more doctors
  • More than 50% see three or more doctors
  • One-third see four or more doctors

Specialists treating a patient may not be aware of all the medications the patient is taking. Primary care physicians, who are responsible for overseeing the patient’s medications, may be reluctant to contradict a specialist, except in the case of clear contraindication.

Mental Side Effects of Over-Medicating Seniors

In addition to causing serious physical problems, over-medication can have a significant impact on cognitive abilities and mental capacity of older adults. Polypharmacy can cause symptoms that are frequently misdiagnosed as various mental conditions, including dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s.

How Seniors Can Avoid Over-Medication

To protect yourself against over-medication, a “brown bag review” is recommended. This involves taking all your drugs, medications, and supplements to your doctor or pharmacist to have them reviewed. Your physician or pharmacist will screen all your medications for potential interactions and inappropriate dosages.

Do not be afraid to question your doctor about whether you really need a prescription medication. Share with all your healthcare providers your medical history, including all the prescription medications, supplements, and over-the-counter drugs you are taking.

Emergency Medical Alert Systems for Seniors

In case of a drug interaction or other medical crisis, it is wise to have an emergency medical alert system in place. Depending on your lifestyle, this can be a landline-based system that is effective within your home, or a cellular-based system that travels with you. State-of-the-art technology, including GPS tracking and automatic fall detection, is available today. Our medical alert comparison provides information to help you choose an emergency medical alert system to suit your needs.

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