Overmedication of the elderly is a big problem in this country. The number of people over the age of 65 taking more than five drugs has escalated in recent years, up from 30.6 percent in 2005 to 35.8 percent in 2011. In addition, an estimated two-thirds of all seniors take dietary supplements and another third regularly consume over-the-counter (OTC) medications. All this presents risks for serious adverse reactions and drug-drug interactions.
For these reasons, I’ve included a chapter on the overmedication of the elderly in my new book Mind Over Meds: Know when Drugs are Necessary, When Alternatives are Better—and When to Let Your Body Heal on Its Own. I asked Julia Jernberg, M.D., medical director of the Iora Health geriatric medicine clinic in Tucson, Arizona, who is very familiar with this issue, to write the chapter.
Dr. Jernberg begins with a compelling story of a senior who was in good health until he began taking an OTC sleeping pill. That single medication set off a cascade of side effects, resulting in the prescription of more and more drugs that triggered serious adverse events. The patient ended up in the hospital, where, as Dr. Jernberg notes, physicians tend to take patients’ medication lists from home and add to them. All too often drugs are prescribed by several different health care practitioners without anyone overseeing the whole picture. In addition, patients may not be aware of possible side effects of the over-the-counter drugs they take, assuming that if they’re sold without a prescription, they must be safe. To make matters worse, doctors are unlikely to advise stopping medications prescribed by their peers.
You might tackle your father’s reluctance to discuss his health and the drugs he is taking by giving him my book and suggesting he read Dr. Jernberg’s chapter. Afterward, you might be able to convince him to consult a pharmacist for a medication therapy management (MTM) review in order to identify and prevent medication related problems. The book also has a chapter by a pharmacist that describes this service, which is important not only for seniors but for everyone taking 5 or more drugs. Others who can benefit from this review are those who have several health conditions and have questions about or problems with their medications, as well as those who recently have been hospitalized or who obtain their prescriptions from more than one doctor or pharmacy.
Too many patients accept prescriptions without questioning why they need them, how long they should take them, and what side effects they can cause. Inform yourself about the real problems of overmedication and make others aware of them.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Read an excerpt from Mind Over Meds – “Too Many Meds: The Problem And The Solution“