Modern medicine allows us live longer and more comfortable lives, but safely taking multiple medications is not without its own challenges. As no strangers to prescription medications, seniors are among the most likely to face those challenges.
As one medication is prescribed for a health condition, and another is prescribed to treat side effects, it’s not hard to see why older adults are commonly lead into a state of polypharmacy. But what is polypharmacy in the elderly, and why is it dangerous?
What is Polypharmacy?
Polypharmacy refers to the use of multiple prescription drugs. Exactly how many?
Interestingly, the definition of polypharmacy isn’t widely agreed upon. Researchers and care providers alike will often use the term differently. Sometimes it’s defined as having two or more prescriptions, but for most definitions it refers to at least five.
How many seniors take five or more prescription medications? According to an Ohio based study, the answer is roughly one third. More than half of those seniors were also taking drug combinations that are contraindicated.
Dangers of Geriatric Polypharmacy
Why is polypharmacy a concern in the elderly? Polypharmacy in geriatric patients is often necessary, but it always comes with risks. As we grow older, the organs responsible for clearing drugs from our system become less efficient at their job.
Along with the metabolic changes associated with aging, this leaves elderly people at a far greater risk of suffering an adverse drug event, meaning an unintended effect from a normal dose. Those risks only grow as the number of medications being taken increases.
Nationwide, it’s estimated 11.5 to 62.5% of elderly people are impacted by inappropriate medication usage. Unfortunately, many of the most common symptoms of associated with polypharmacy are often confused with the symptoms of growing old. That includes dry mouth, sleepiness, feeling less alert, loss of appetite, confusion, depression, tremors, anxiety, dizziness, and weakness.
Polypharmacy in elderly patients makes it even more important to take medications properly because there are increased risks of non-adherence. It can lead to ER visits, hospitalizations, and additional need for care. It’s been shown to be an independent risk factor for hip fractures. And ironically, polypharmacy can also lead to under treatment because physicians may become hesitant to continue prescribing medications.
Preventing Polypharmacy in Older Adults
Few definitions of polypharmacy make the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate polypharmacy. Sometimes it’s necessary to take several medications, even medications that are contraindicated. That’s why it’s so important to undergo a regular review of medications that are being taken, in order to help determine how appropriate they continue to be.
One thing that contributes to inappropriate polypharmacy in older adults is having multiple providers. Individual physicians may overlook the whole picture, and prescribe with only a single condition in mind. Which is part of the reason why having a geriatrician can be so invaluable to health outcomes.
For many people, polypharmacy is essential. But it’s important to never lose sight of the potential dangers of using multiple medications. For people who need to take several medication, learning a little more about medication management may help.