The Drug Epidemic Few People Talk About

senior man with multiple prescription drug bottles sitting in front of him


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. But, there’s another, often-ignored drug problem that kills thousands of Americans each year – adverse reactions from medications prescribed by doctors.

Not surprisingly, seniors are the largest consumers of prescription medications. Aging comes with an increase in illness and chronic conditions. One in three Americans over the age of 65 takes five or more prescription medications. 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, overmedicated seniors have developed life-threatening side effects. A recent study found approximately one in five prescriptions written for elderly patients was inappropriate.

Overmedication has serious consequences

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.

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 often don’t communicate with each other and the senior patient 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 will occasionally treat a new symptom with another drug instead of seeing the symptom for what it is – an adverse reaction to a current drug. Doctors may 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 elders are a vulnerable population. Seniors are more likely to have memory loss and get confused easily. Seniors are notorious for not questioning their doctors and often, they see more than one doctor without sharing this information, so 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 a loved one is taking. Show the list to your doctor and pharmacist 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 and get the right combination of drugs that will best suit your specific situation.

Enlist the services of a home health professional.

A Family Home Health home health professional can help you or a loved manage this often complicated process. These dedicated individuals can administer medications and help ensure that all prescriptions are appropriate and being taken as directed.

Finally, be an advocate for yourself. You are the best person to know what’s in your own best interest. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If a medication is making you sick, ask your doctor for an alternative therapy or treatment.

Categories: Senior Health