Are America’s Older Adults Taking Too Many Drugs?

senior couple trying to figure out how to manage a multitude of drugs


When we think of a drug problem in America, many think of illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine crossing our borders and corrupting our youth. Or the opioid epidemic that claims thousands of lives each year in the United States. And both of these issues need to be addressed as part of an overall health strategy.                     

But, there’s another, often-ignored drug problem that many people tend to ignore – adverse reactions from medications prescribed by doctors. And, as we age, we are more likely to be taking more prescription medications, which raises our risk for an adverse drug reaction (ADR) – either from a single drug or a combination of drugs that proves dangerous.

More than a third of Americans over the age of 65 take at least five prescription medications, a scenario described as polypharmacy. The typical 75-year-old takes more than 10 prescription drugs. And while these drugs have helped save lives and improve the health and well-being of millions of people, polypharmacy can have life-threatening side effects.

How big is the problem?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse drug events cause approximately 1.3 million emergency department visits each year. Overmedication of seniors has been linked to falls, kidney failure and even heart attacks as well as misdiagnoses for conditions from depression to dementia. One-third of prescription-related deaths are of elderly persons. In one study, researchers discovered that approximately one in five prescriptions written for elderly patients was inappropriate.

Why is this happening?

There are many reasons why seniors may be taking too many prescription medications. Here are some of the major reasons.

  • Multiple health problems

One of the reasons that polypharmacy is so common is that seniors often have different doctors treating multiple health problems. They see a cardiologist for their heart issues, a gastroenterologist for digestive problems, a neurologist for Alzheimer’s disease or stroke recovery, an oncologist for their cancer concerns, and the list goes on and on. The problem is that these specialists generally don’t communicate with each other and the senior patient often forgets to communicate to each physician what medications they’re taking.

  • Side effect or new symptom?

Adding to the problem is the fact that doctors often treat a new symptom with another drug instead of seeing the symptom for what it is – an adverse reaction to a current drug. Doctors might see the adverse reaction as a new disease instead of a side effect and prescribe a new medication to handle the new symptom, increasing the possibility of adverse reactions to a drug that isn’t needed. Dr. Michael W. Rich, a cardiology professor at Washington University says, “The likelihood of an adverse reaction for someone taking more than 10 prescription drugs is nearly 100 percent.”

  • A population at higher risk

Finally, one of the reasons elders are overmedicated may be due to the fact that they are a vulnerable population. Older adults are more likely to have memory loss and get confused easily. They often hesitate to question their doctors and often, if they see more than one doctor without sharing this information, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

Protect yourself

Before any appointment with a medical professional, you should make a list of all the medications and dosage directions – including over-the-counter ones – you or your loved one is taking. Show the list to your doctor and ask specifically about contraindications with other medications. Make sure all the dosages are still appropriate. If you don’t know what a particular medication is for, ask! Whenever your doctor prescribes a new drug, ask what it’s for and if you really need it. Get educated on all the possible side effects of any medication you’re taking. If your doctor gives you a medication for high blood pressure and high blood pressure is a side effect of another medication, point this out to help your doctor prescribe the right combination of drugs that will best suit your specific situation.

Finally, be an advocate for yourself or a loved one. You are the best person to know what’s in your own best interest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you suspect a medication is making you sick, ask your doctor for an alternative medicine, therapy or treatment. But never stop taking a medication or change dosages without consulting your doctor.

Categories: Senior Health