Overmedicating the Elderly – the new Epidemic

Jeff's picture

An 83-year-old grandmother is rushed to the hospital because of an asthma attack.  Once there, she is prescribed steroids for the asthma, which causes her blood pressure to skyrocket.  To lower her blood pressure, the hospital prescribes a medicine that makes her dizzy. Then, her ankles began to swell, so she is given a water pill, which causes her level of potassium to drop. So the doctors add potassium supplements. She is also given a drug to treat osteoporosis, which causes her stomach to bleed. At the end of her stay, the grandmother comments, “I came out sicker than when I went in.”

This is just one real-life story of an ever-growing epidemic – the overmedication of America, and the elderly in particular. In 2011, doctors wrote 4.02 billion prescriptions for drugs in America. That’s an average of roughly 13 prescriptions for each man, woman, and child, or one new prescription every month for every American.

Seniors are at greater risk

The problem is even more pronounced among the elderly. Although seniors currently comprise 12.4 percent of the U.S. population, they consume nearly a third of all prescriptions and half of all over-the-counter medications. Ninety percent of all seniors over 65 take some form of medication daily, with 50 percent of this group taking more than five drugs every day. A recent study found approximately one in five prescriptions written for elderly patients was inappropriate.

Why it happens

Researchers at the University of Toronto and at Harvard have clearly documented and articulated what they call the “prescribing cascade.” It begins when a new symptom emerges, resulting from an adverse reaction to their medication. But instead of being seen for what it is, doctors misinterpret it as a new medical condition. So another drug is then prescribed to treat the new symptom placing the patient at risk of developing additional adverse effects relating to this potentially unnecessary treatment. Seniors who are overmedicated have been mistakenly diagnosed with numerous ailments, including depression, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

The risks of overmedication

Excess or inappropriate medication, or mixing medications, can have serious complications. From 2007 to 2009, there were an estimated 99,628 emergency hospitalizations annually for adverse drug events in individuals 65 years and older. The Institute of Medicine estimates that medication-related problems among the elderly costs billions of dollars. One-third of prescription-related deaths are of elderly persons.

How to protect yourself or someone you love

Most seniors don’t question their doctors. They trust them to look out for their well-being, sowhen a doctor says, “Do this, you’ll feel better,” they tend to believe it. If you want to protect yourself or a loved one, here are some things you can do:

·         Gather all the pills you are taking – including over-the-counter medication – and take them to a doctor or pharmacist for review. Ask specifically about contraindications with other medications. Ensure the dosages are still appropriate. If you don’t know what a medication is for, ask.

·         Whenever a doctor prescribes a new medication, ask what it’s for and if you really need it. Tell your doctor everything you are currently taking and if the new prescription will have any adverse reactions with anything you’re currently taking.

·         If you become ill, ask your doctor if your symptoms match any potential side effects of any medication you’re taking.

·         Most important, be an advocate for yourself. Become informed about the medication you’re taking and their side effects. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If a medication is making you sick, ask your doctor for an alternative.

For more information about possible drug interactions, please visit http://www.drugs.com/drug_interactions.html.

© Copyright 2013 by Emeritus.com. All rights reserved. This material may only be published, rewritten or redistributed with permission from corpmarketing@emeritus.com.


MedicalIronman's picture
Submitted by MedicalIronman (not verified) on

Great article. I like the idea of taking control of your own destiny. The article is not really telling you to ignore your doctors advice but to question it. I think that sort of accountability is refreshing and could save many lives and suffering from over medication. I have been with www.jrsmedical.com for a while now and I can tell you first hand that taking your health in your own hands is the most important thing you can do for yourself. Bravo, well done indeed.

Amy Blitchok's picture
Submitted by Amy Blitchok (not verified) on

I think the first thing any patient should ask when they are prescribed a new medication is whether there are any lifestyle changes they can make that will allow them to only have to use the medication temporarily or avoid it altogether. So many of our health problems are caused or exacerbated by our health habits. Both you and your doctor should be advocating for your health and not just treating symptoms.

Epoch Elder Care's picture
Submitted by Epoch Elder Care (not verified) on

Drugs arent the answer to anything!! Medications should be done in the prescribed limit and should not be over medicated as it has adverse effects on the heath and it can be lethal !


CrystalLPN's picture
Submitted by CrystalLPN (not verified) on

Drugs are not the answer for everything. I see it day after day. Mostly, all it takes is a doctor or health care person who will listen first, write scripts later; or family that will take charge. If a patient is void of the above in their life, the outlook is grim, unfortunately...

C Landry's picture
Submitted by C Landry (not verified) on

My mom is prescribed: Morphine patch, 120 10mg percocet/mo., 5 ADD pills daily, Ambien CR to sleep,
Flexeril, Xanax, Lexapro, Elavil, Midrine when needed, Nasal Spray, Occasionally gets Cortisone Epidurals, - additionally; Aleve taken whenever, Nitroglycerin, Thyroid medicine, blood pressure meds,
and whatever I don't remember or know of. I think it should be illegal to give someone all these meds.
She has become so emotionally unstable and refuses to go to the counsellor that had her doing great earlier this year. She quit going in June or July. She is so depressed and obsesses over anything negative. She does not want anyone going to the doctor with her and often self medicates running out of meds early. She can call the doctor and get what she wants it seems- I am so livid at her doctors it ain't funny no more. She is pushing everyone away and will not allow anyone to give her her meds, keeps them locked up so we can't monitor her intake. What to do??????

jerrilynn's picture
Submitted by jerrilynn (not verified) on

I have a 91 year old grandmother who takes 2 prescription medications. She still drives and can balance her checkbook. I had a friend 93 whom was prescribed 20 pills each day and believed she had 2 kitchens and that people inside her television talked to her. I believe we as a whole take many medications we could do without and in doing so are doing ourselves more harm than good. THINK ABOUT THINGS! DON'T GIVE IN TO MONEY MAKING PILL PUSHERS! IF YOU WONT DIE WITHOUT IT- DON'T TAKE IT.

киста на почке's picture
Submitted by киста на почке (not verified) on

I do love the manner in which you have framed this particular situation and it does provide me personally some fodder for consideration. Nevertheless, from just what I have seen, I only trust when the actual responses stack on that people stay on issue and in no way embark upon a soap box of some other news du jour. Yet, thank you for this outstanding point and whilst I do not concur with it in totality, I respect your point of view.

Jana's picture
Submitted by Jana (not verified) on

As a registered nurse I have observed many, many cases of over medication. Physicians do not check with patients to see what drugs they are already taking. before prescribing others. Many elderly can not advocate for themselves and have no one to do it for them. Or, if they see a few "specialists" the medications are often conflicting with no one doing oversight. This is a critical problems for the elderly...and children, whose parents do not do "due diligence" when meds are prescribed.

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