You may have become used to seeing multiple bottles of pills or other medications on your aging parent’s cabinet or counter, but polypharmacy — the regular use of five or more medications — can pose a serious health risk to seniors. Each year, about 350,000 people are hospitalized after visits to the emergency room because of adverse, or harmful, drug events, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Medication management is an important preventive measure to avoid potentially serious health hazards in seniors. Older adults often take multiple medications, vitamins, and supplements to treat different symptoms and health conditions, which can increase their risk of medication mix-ups. In some cases, these simple mistakes can become dangerous and even fatal.
Other factors that increase the risk of health problems related to medication mismanagement in older adults include:
- Cognitive conditions, including memory problems
- Multiple chronic diseases
- Seeing multiple doctors
- Not having a primary care doctor to coordinate care
- Mental health conditions
Health problems related to medication mismanagement in older adults are often caused by:
- Drug interactions. Certain medications cannot be taken together or with specific foods or drinks. For example, some medications cannot be taken with alcoholic drinks or citrus fruits because it alters their effects.
- Seniors who have different health conditions or see multiple doctors may be prescribed more medications than they need if their care is not carefully monitored. Mental illness or memory problems can also lead seniors to take more medicine than they need.
- Falls and fractures. Taking multiple medications may increase the risk of hip fractures in the elderly. It also significantly raises the risk of falls in older adults, regardless of medication type.
- Discontinuation of treatment. Older adults may unintentionally forget to follow their doctor’s directions. Others who take several medications may deliberately choose to not fill prescriptions, skip doses, or discontinue treatment for financial reasons as the cost of prescription drug continue to rise.
Taking multiple medications: How much medicine do seniors take?
About 80% of older adults regularly take at least two prescription medications, and 36% regularly take at least five prescription drugs, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. These rates are higher when over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and supplements are included. Seniors in nursing homes are prescribed an average of seven to eight drugs regularly.
These numbers make it easier to understand why polypharmacy is a growing problem as the U.S. population ages. However, there are steps you can take to help your loved one get organized and practice better medication management.
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