Polypharmacy – technically defined as a medication regimen of five or more drugs – touches all age groups in modern America. Surveys say that a disturbingly number of U.S. seniors may be over-medicated. As a rule, the older people get, the more specialists they need to see. Why might polypharmacy – taking as many as 14 or more medicines at once – cause problems? The fundamental risk is that drug interactions (including those stimulated by over-the-counter medications) and accumulating side effects can create primary and secondary health problems.
The number of drugs seniors take has increased in recent years. Last year, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 39 percent of people over 65 take five or more medications, a statistic that represents a 79 percent rise in polypharmacy over the past 12 years.
Complicating the predicament, many seniors also take dietary supplements, some of which can cause negative health effects and react adversely with medications. For example, fish oil, a common nutritional supplement, can produce bleeding in patients who take blood thinners. Since many people don’t mention these herbs and alternative medicines to their doctors, negative consequences can occur. In fact, some of the interactions can be deadly.
According to Dr. Michael A. Steinman, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, who wrote a commentary that accompanied the study, overhauling the fragmented approach to health care presents the best way to prevent dangerous polypharmacy. In the meantime, patients who fear that they are taking too many medications or that their medications may be leading to unexpected consequences should bring their pills to their doctors for a thorough assessment.
To learn more about medication safety, see Preventing Medication Errors by Reconcilation: Does your Hospital/Nursing Home Do This?
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