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Senior Lifestyles: The American drug culture and seniors

It’s not much of a surprise to hear that there’s a prescription drug epidemic in America.

We take pills for everything, from losing weight to controlling diseases and pains.

But for seniors, taking drugs can also present a particularly difficult and dangerous situation.

As Americans live longer, we rely more on the use of drugs and supplements, which can lead to a drug phenomenon known as polypharmacy, the regular use of five or more drugs, pills or medications.

According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, based on a study of 3,000 participants ages 57 to 85, over 80 percent of study participants used at least one prescription medication, but almost 30 percent used at least five prescription medications on a regular basis.

Four percent of all the seniors in this study were considered at risk for a major drug interaction problem, and 10 percent of men, 75-85 years of age, were at risk for an adverse drug-related interaction.

Commonly used drugs like blood thinners in combination with aspirin, some cholesterol medicines like Zocor or ACE blood pressure medications like Lisinopril can create life-threatening reactions. Add to that risk the increasing use of pain medications and anti-depressants, and you have the makings for deadly drug “cocktails.” 

Of course, some patients are taking these combinations under the supervision of their physician, but many are not.

What can you do about the increasing problem of polypharmacy?

First, it’s important when you see your doctor to review all of the medications you take, including over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and supplements. Carry a clearly printed list of everything you take, including the dosage and frequency, and make sure that a copy of that list is in your medical file.

If a new prescription is being written, take time to ask if there are any concerns for interaction with any of the other medicines or pills you take, both prescription and nonprescription, as doing so may save your life.

Don’t expect doctors to be aware of all the new drugs coming into the marketplace, or of the impact of the hundreds of herbal supplements. It is important to share with all your doctors the list of drugs you take as a step toward protecting yourself from being on the receiving end of a bad reaction from an inadvertent drug mix, including over the counter medicines and supplements.

It’s also a good idea to share your complete list of medications with your pharmacist who may be better equipped to know if the combinations of your prescribed and over-the-counter drugs might pose a medical threat of reaction.

Also know that prescription painkillers are a favorite target for addicts and criminals. Seniors are vulnerable because many don’t lock up or dispose of unused drugs. It’s not just criminals who might take pills from a medicine cabinet; it can be aides assisting you in the house, repair people, even your adult children and grandchildren.

If you have unused narcotic pain medicines call 2-1-1 or the county sheriff’s office for information about properly disposing of any unused drugs.

Ron Kauffman is a consultant and expert speaker on issues of aging. His wife’s geriatric management practice serves clients in Henderson, Polk and Brevard counties. He is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease,” available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. He and his wife may be contacted at 828-696-9799 or by email at drron561@gmail.com.