Drug Abuse In the Elderly – Q & A


1. Do older people use more medications than younger people?

Yes, definitely. People over 65 average 13 prescriptions each year. The national average for all age groups is 7.5 prescriptions per year. This compares to 2.4 twenty-five years ago.

2. Why do they use so many drugs?

The fact that the elderly tend to have more illnesses accounts for much of it. They may be seeing several doctors, each prescribing their own medications. The patient may not tell their primary care doctor about these other prescriptions.

3. Isn’t that dangerous?

It sure is. Interactions between different medications and adverse side effects may cause the drugs to do more harm than good. It’s no wonder medication use by the elderly is sometimes call “America’s Other Drug Problem“.

4. How widespread is this problem?

Well, doctors write over 1.5 billion prescriptions in the United States each year, and 1/3 of these are for people 65 and over. And only 1 out of 8 people are in this age bracket.

5. Isn’t it hard to keep track of taking so many medications?

There is no question about that. It can be a nightmare for the patient to remember to take his medications at the proper time and in the right amounts. This can cause unintentional misuse of the drugs and predispose a patient to drug reactions. It can also make it very difficult for the doctor to know what to recommend if the medication does not seem to be working.

6. Can’t the pharmacist help explain things?

Yes, but many times you find that patients shop around for the best price on their medications, and one pharmacist may not know the full extent of the problem.

7. What are the typical symptoms of a drug reaction?

These can be quite varied, depending on the medication. Common symptoms that are often overlooked as drug reactions in the elderly include depression, confusion, and memory loss. In addition, a new problem with falling or urinary incontinence may be a sign of a drug intolerance.

8. Then what does one do to minimize the chance for problems such as these?

First, keep an eye on yourself. If you’ve just started taking a new medication and don’t feel quite right, talk to your doctor. He may be able to adjust the dose or find a more tolerable alternative.

Second, keep an eye on your doctors! Ask plenty of questions, and make sure one doctor knows what another has prescribed for you. It is probably best to bring all your medications when you go for your appointments.

Lastly, get help from your nurse, pharmacist, family, and friends. Keep them informed about any new medications you are taking – they may observe some problem that you may not have noticed.

Copyright 1996 Robert Stall MD / Stall Geriatrics LLC – originally written 5/10/94; posted 5/25/96

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