With advances in medicine and people living longer, it’s become common for older adults to be on many different medications. Even seemingly healthy seniors may be taking more than 10 different prescriptions. Often these medications are prescribed by several different providers. This can lead to what’s known as “polypharmacy,” the use of more drugs than are medically necessary. It is estimated that nearly half of older adults take one or more medicines that are not really needed.
Taking multiple medications can be dangerous. The risk of having a drug interaction or side effects increases as people take more medications. As people age and their bodies change, the way their bodies process medications also changes. Drugs may build up in their bodies, which can lead to a greater risk of falls, or even to the inability of individuals to care for themselves. People often have trouble remembering how and when to take all of their medications correctly. For individual and the health care system as a whole, more medicine typically means higher costs.
People can take steps to reduce these risks. Anyone who takes prescription medicines should keep an updated medication record that has the name and strength of each medication, directions listing when to take it and why the medication was prescribed. This record should also list any over-the-counter medicines and any vitamins or supplements a person takes. Patients should take the list with them to all doctor appointments, so all of their providers know what medications they are taking.
Patients should also plan to talk to their health care providers at least once a year to make sure they still need each medication and that the dose is still right for them. Adults receiving Medicare have an opportunity to have this conversation every year at their annual Medicare Wellness Visit.
If you have questions about medications, ask your pharmacist. Pharmacists are medication experts who are specially trained to know what medications are for, when medications should not be taken together, what side effects to watch out for, and when to contact the prescribing provider about side effects. Many health care providers have clinical pharmacists on staff to review medications for patients and provide education on how to use prescribed medications safely and correctly. A clinical pharmacist can help identify drug therapy problems, which can lead to healthier outcomes. If patients are unable to afford medications, pharmacists may also be able to recommend lower cost options.