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Messages of Caution: Medication Misuse and Older Adults

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More than 30 percent of all medications are prescribed for the l2 percent of Americans who are over the age of 65. Older adults also purchase about 40 percent of over-the-counter (OTC) medications available without a prescription. When used properly, medications are helpful in treating or relieving the symptoms of many of the illnesses and diseases that affect older adults.

Along with the benefits of medications however, come potential risks. Problems with medications can result from:

  • Adverse reactions or side effects
  • Interactions with other drugs, foods, or alcohol
  • Drug dependence
  • Taking medications improperly
  • Taking too many medications

Problems with medications may go undetected because warning signs are mistaken for other health problems or 'growing old.' Even worse, these problems may be treated with yet more medications. Some signals pointing to a potential problem with medications include:

  • Restlessness
  • Falls
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Loss of memory
  • Constipation
  • Incontinence
  • Sleep disorder
  • Weight loss
  • Dizziness
  • Tremors
  • Stomach irritation
  • Abnormal movements

Medications may affect older adults differently due to physical changes that occur with aging. Also, each individual's body responds differently to medications. It is important to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us. A new feeling or physical symptom may be caused by many factors, but it may also be related to problems with medications.

Adverse Drug Reactions

Older adults are at increased risk for adverse reactions to medications. Adverse reactions or side effects are unintended effects due to medications. No medication, including those available over-the-counter, is completely free of side effects. Side effects may be slightly bothersome or they may be life threatening, depending on the medication, the individual taking it, and the number of drugs involved. Adverse reactions may begin quite soon after starting a new medication, or they may develop gradually.

In treating some health problems, alternatives may be available which cause fewer adverse effects. It is important to learn about the potential side effects of a medication from your physician or pharmacist before taking it and to advise your physician of any adverse reactions experienced in the past. While taking a medication, note any undesirable changes that develop and report them to your physician as well.

Drug Interactions

When medications are mixed with other drugs, foods, coffee, cigarettes, or alcohol, unwanted interaction effects can result. Interactions may increase or decrease the effects of a medication, causing adverse reactions or preventing the drug from working at all. Drug interactions may result in serious health problems, especially for older adults who are more likely to take several medications and to be more sensitive to the effects of combining medications.

To prevent harmful drug interactions, tell your physician and pharmacist about all the medications that you take. Include your prescriptions as well as over-the-counter medications and other remedies. Ask whether foods or alcohol will interfere with your medications.

Drug Dependence

Some medications also have the potential to be habit-forming. Long-term or improper use of these medications may lead to addiction. Signs of a potential problem with addiction include: acquiring the same medication from different physicians and pharmacists; borrowing medications from others; increasing doses of medications without the advice of a physician; or hoarding medications. Medications that may lead to addiction include those used to relieve sleep problems, pain or anxiety. Excessive use of over-the-counter medications such as sleep aids and laxatives may also result in dependence.

To avoid drug dependence, ask your physician or pharmacist whether your medications may be habit-forming. Chronic use of habit-forming medications can lead to addiction, so be sure you know how to use your medications safely. With proper use, habit-forming medications can be taken without fear of addiction. For older adults who have already developed a problem with drug dependence however, effective treatment is available.

Using Medications Properly

Taking too much or too little medication or taking it at the wrong time can pose serious health risks. Improper medication can result in inadequate treatment, unnecessary hospitalizations, increased medical expenses, and increased adverse drug reactions. The problem can be caused by complicated dosing schedules, not understanding instructions for use, not getting prescriptions refilled on time, or not talking with your physician about side effects.

To prevent these problems, be sure you understand how you should take each of the prescription and over-the-counter medications you use. Do not stop taking a medication without the advice of your physician. Never take medications prescribed for other people. Ask your pharmacist or physician for help in organizing and managing your medication schedule.

Taking Too Many Medications

Older adults often have several health problems and seek advice from more than one physician. Each problem may be treated with a different medication. Taking several medications can be beneficial, but may also lead to problems. Taking too many drugs (including over-the-counter drugs) increases the risk of drug interactions and adverse reactions, and is unnecessarily expensive.

To avoid unnecessary medication, tell each physician, dentist, and pharmacist that you see about all of your medications, including over-the-counter medications. Know why you are taking each. Ask about non-drug alternatives. Even one medication is excessive if it is not needed.

Remember, the responsibility for your medications and your health is shared by you, your physicians, your pharmacists, and other health professionals. Using your medications wisely and preventing problems requires your active and personal participation.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Gerontology
Last Review:04/17/2012