Overmedication of Older Adults
DEAR JIM: I am currently taking 16 different prescription medications for several different medical problems, and I feel like a zombie. I’m tired all the time and have absolutely no energy to do anything anymore. At 75, my golden years have become my “olden” years. What can an old lady do to improve her quality of life – whatever is left of it anyway? FADING FAST
DEAR FADING: Both of my parents – and my in-laws too – take multiple prescriptions for different things. My father, for example, takes medication to control his cholesterol, but he has never had high cholesterol. He also takes a blood thinner, but his blood is already thin and, in fact, he suffers from chronic nosebleeds. He takes medications for high blood pressure and prostate too, but his blood pressure has always been normal (or better), and his prostate is normal. So, why does he take these medications for non-existent problems? Because his doctor prescribed them – that’s why – and I would guess that it’s probably why you and other readers are taking so many different medications too.
Maintaining a good relationship with your physician – and trusting your physician – is important, so I am not advocating that you disregard your doctor’s directives. You probably have a very real need for each and every prescription that you are taking. There are, however, some physicians who do overprescribe medications for their patients. It is a quick and easy appeasement – especially for patients who are chronic complainers or especially persistent. You see, “zombies” just stay at home, take their medications without question, and vegetate.
Of the more than 10,000 medicines on the market today (“How Safe Are Your Medicines?” Linda Marsa, Ladies Home Journal, May 2005, p. 206), one of the most common side effects is drowsiness or fatigue. If only half of your current prescriptions can make you tired – and that might be conservative – you could be potentially increasing your risk of fatigue by a factor of 8! How do you know for sure? Well, start by reading the labels on the bottles or the inserts that came with your medications and see just how many list drowsiness or fatigue as a possible side effect. In addition, some prescription medications might cause unexpected side effects when taken with other medications or even with certain foods or nutritional supplements.
Here are some guidelines that you might want to follow:
• If you are seeing several specialists, be sure to check with your primary care physician if they prescribe any new medications to be sure that they do not conflict with something you are already taking. Of course, you should always carry a complete list with you of all the medications that you take and share it with all of your physicians.
• Ask your primary care physician WHY you are taking certain medications – particularly if you don’t have the condition for which the medication is supposedly designated. If your doctor is offended by your questions, find another doctor because you have a right to know and a NEED to know - don’t take medications just because your doctor says to take them. Educate yourself so that you can ask the right questions, and take control of your health. After all, you (or your insurance company) is paying the bill. Make sure you get what you are paying for.
• When starting any new medications, ask your doctor if he/she is prescribing the lowest dose possible to help your condition. If you experience side effects at a lower dosage, you (and your doctor) will know not to increase the dosage.
• Throw away old prescriptions. Some medicines lose their potency over time, and your body might react differently now to medication that was prescribed based on earlier criteria.
Another factor, if you are overweight – and women generally have more bodyfat than men anyway - certain medications that are stored in fat cells may remain in your system longer and reach higher concentrations (hence the greater potential for side effects) as you continue to take your medications as scheduled. You did not indicate how physically active you are, but regular exercise – even something as simple as walking 30 minutes a day – can help to control your weight and metabolize your medications more efficiently.
Regular exercise can actually energize you. Even if you don’t FEEL like walking some days, you will ALWAYS feel better when you have finished.
Jim Evans is a 38-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and a nationally recognized consultant on fitness for seniors. He is also host of the popular radio show “Forever Young” on San Diego’s KCBQ 1170 AM (KCBQ.com) on Saturdays at 10:00 A.M. PST