As we age, our health problems multiply, leaving many Americans on numerous medications whether to treat high blood pressure, thyroid problems, high cholesterol, diabetes, Alzheimers disease, etc. And while many of these medications are necessary to prevent serious health problems, they also come with potentially life-threatening side effects. An estimated third of patients over 65 have suffered a serious adverse side effect from their prescription medications.
A recent article in The New York Times highlighted some of the problems with the growing overmedication of the elderly. Recent studies have found that elderly patients are more at risk for adverse drug reactions not only because they are generally on such a large number of medications, but also because some medications can have a different effect on elderly patients. For example, hypnotic sedatives, such as Ativan, that are used to treat anxiety can cause confusion and severe sedation in elderly patients. Likewise, sedating antihistamines can also cause confusion, blurred vision, or drowsiness.
The American Geriatrics Society addressed this issue by publishing new guidelines that identify which medications are most likely to have adverse effects on elderly patients. Again, given that almost half of patients over 65 years-old take five or more medications on a daily basis, these guidelines will be extremely helpful to geriatric doctors. The intent of these new guidelines are not only to help prevent negative medication side effects, but also to decrease the overall cost of medication.
As part of this updated Beers Criteria for potentially inappropriate medication use in the elderly, the American Geriatrics Society placed the 53 identified medications into three different categories:
- drugs the elderly should avoid in general,
- drugs to avoid among elderly patients with certain diseases and/or syndromes, and
- drugs to use with caution if no acceptable alternative can be found.
There were some unexpected findings. For example, small doses of aspirin taken to prevent heart attacks “may do more harm than good” in patients over 80 years-old. And while the panel recognized that sometimes many of these medications are necessary in elderly patients, it stressed the importance of using alternative medications. For example, instead of prescribing Ativan and risking that the patient might enter a drug-induced coma, doctors could alternatively prescribe a safer option, such as an herbal or nondrug sedative.
However, doctors and nurses are not solely responsible for preventing adverse drug reactions, elderly patients must play a part as well. Due to the large number of medications many elderly patients are on and the increased likelihood of having multiple, specialized doctors, it is often hard to keep track of each medication and its dosage. To assist in this process, the Foundation for Health and Aging has created a one-page document to help patients keep track of the various drugs they are taking and the corresponding dosages. In addition, patients should be aware of the potential side effects from all their medications; if they experience any of these identified side effects, patients should contact their physician immediately to avoid a potentially life-threatening outcome.
Brody, Jane. “Too Many Pills for Aging Patients.” The New York Times. 16 April 2012.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling nursing home abuse cases and serious personal injury matters for individuals and families for more than 36 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Chicago’s Jefferson Park, Palos Heights, Alsip, Park Forest, Mount Prospect, Chicago’s Edgewater, Franklin Park, Glendale, Itasca, and South Chicago Heights.
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