Patient & Family Resource Blog

Seniors at Greater Risk for Overmedication

Senior woman receiving medication in her home


The proliferation of prescription drugs continues to skyrocket. Nearly three in five American adults take a prescription drug at any given time. From 2000 to 2012, the percentage of people taking five or more prescription drugs rose from 8 to 15 percent.

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 an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there were an estimated 99,628 emergency hospitalizations annually for adverse drug events in individuals 65 years and older for the years 2007 to 2009. Most of these hospitalizations resulted from commonly used medications and not from drugs considered high-risk or inappropriate. 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.

“Better safe than sorry”

Part of the problem may lie in the fact that many doctors take the “better safe than sorry” approach when prescribing medications. For instance, statin drugs – used to treat high cholesterol – are one of the most-prescribed drugs in the U.S., and seniors are likely targets for the medication. The rate of statin use among people age 80 and older – who have no history of heart disease or stroke – increased four times from 1999 through 2012, according to two researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Alberta, making the elderly the highest users of statins in the U.S. The problem here is that for patients this old, there is little to no research demonstrating that the benefits outweigh the risks, which can including muscle pain, liver damage and an increased risk of developing diabetes.

Side effect or new symptom?

Adding to the problem is the fact that doctors often treat a new symptom with another drug instead of seeing the symptom for what it is – an adverse reaction to a current drug. Doctors will frequently 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 vulnerable population

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 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 help of a Blize home health professional. 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