Medication Overload: More Older Adults Than Ever Are Taking Multiple Drugs

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From Next Avenue: “More than 40% of Americans age 65 and older take five or more prescription drugs, a phenomenon known as polypharmacy, entailing a 200% increase over the past 20 years, as the Lown Institute (2020) reported.

In addition, nearly 20% of older adults take ten drugs or more.

. . . research shows that each additional medication raises a person’s risk of suffering an adverse drug event by 7 to 10%.

Such events send as many as 750 older Americans to the hospital each day. ‘Side effects can range from dizziness or digestion issues to much more serious side effects such as falling, hemorrhaging, brain bleeds and even death,’ says Garber.

Garber adds that when the harms of polypharmacy outweigh the benefits, medication overload results.

Factors Driving Medication Overload

Experts say many factors contribute to the rising percentage of older adults taking multiple medications and the heightened risk of medication overload, including:

• Pharmaceutical company advertising: Only the United States and New Zealand allow direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs, which may lead patients to pressure doctors for a prescription. Companies also advertise to doctors and visit their offices, often bringing food and small gifts. ‘It’s been shown in study after study that giving a free lunch or even pens can make a difference in what doctors prescribe,’ says Garber.

• Culture: ‘There is a prevalent view in the United States, and other countries too, that a pill is the best way to deal with every health issue you have. And that is not always the case,’ says Garber.

• Cascade effect: Doctors may prescribe a drug for one condition and then prescribe others for the resulting side effects, says Zarowitz. ‘Rather than someone stopping and saying, “What started this whole cascade?” it just continues.’

• Miscommunication: Specialists caring for a patient may not communicate with one another, which can result in medication duplication or dangerous drug interactions.

• Time pressures: Doctors often have only 10 minutes to spend with each patient. ‘If the physician feels that pressure of a full waiting room and having to turn people around to make a profit, then there is an incentive to write a prescription and get them out the door,’ says Zarowitz.”

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