Today, approximately half of all people over 65 take five or more medications daily; about one quarter take between 10 and 20 medications each day. A single medication can sometimes have its own adverse effect.
And someone taking as few as two or three may experience a drug-drug interaction. But polypharmacy, the clinical term for the use of numerous and potentially unnecessary prescription medications, appears to be the main reason for the heightened risk of drug complications in older adults.
Here’s why …
Older people are at increased risk for adverse medication events. They tend to take more medications than younger people, on average. In addition, older adults metabolize drugs less efficiently than younger ones, making them more likely to experience drug-drug interactions — when one medication affects the way another medication works or compounds its effects.
Some indications that your drugs aren’t mixing well or that you are having a bad reaction to a particular drug might include a rash, fever, diarrhea, mild difficulty breathing, and a rapid or slow heartbeat. More serious reactions include seizures and anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal. But even mild symptoms, such as drowsiness and dizziness, can increase the likelihood of an injury such as a fracture from a fall. Hip fractures can be as deadly as some cancers for older adults, because they can lead to a cycle of disability and declining health.
Everyone reacts to medications differently. But some drugs and drug combinations are clearly more worrisome than others. While most doctors have a good idea which drugs and drug reactions to look out for, a lack of communication between healthcare providers can add to the problem. More often than not, older adults get prescriptions from several specialists — so it’s not uncommon for one doctor to have little or no knowledge of what another doctor prescribes. This can result in several potentially dangerous scenarios.
Bottom line advice
The best way to protect yourself is to establish a relationship with a primary care physician who can regularly review all your medications, including over-the-counter drugs and supplements. This is especially important if you take four or more drugs, have three or more medical conditions, or receive prescriptions from more than one doctor.
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