According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), seniors use more prescription medications than the general population — and are at most risk for medicine-related complications. The study looked at people aged 57 through 85, and found that 81% of the people it surveyed take at least one prescription medication regularly, and nearly one-third regularly use at least 5 prescription medications. That number doesn’t include over-the-counter medications and nutritional supplements, which are used regularly by nearly 50% of the study’s participants.
Why is that a problem? Because the possible interactions between medications goes up as the number of medications goes up. And medication interactions are a serious problem. They cause nearly three-quarters of all “adverse events” that follow hospitalizations.
While computer programs used by pharmacies monitor interactions between various prescription medications, the study found that half of all major drug interactions involved prescription medications being combined with over-the-counter drugs or nutritional supplements, a factor that is not usually taken into account by these programs.
The drugs — prescription and over-the-counter — most commonly associated with a drug interaction serious enough to result in a hospital admission, are: low-dose aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), diuretics, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Advil, Motrin, and Aleve.
The other major cause of adverse drug reactions is improper dosing for the patient’s age, weight, and medical condition, especially their kidney function.
What can you do to prevent drug interactions? Try these six tips:
- Tell all. When asked at a medical visit what medications you take, be sure to mention everything, even your mineral and vitamin supplements.
- Ask questions. If you are being prescribed a new medication or supplement, ask about possible side effects and drug interactions.
- Trust but verify. After you’ve heard everything from your healthcare provider, ask your pharmacist for more information. Pharmacists are specially trained to understand the mechanisms and interactions of medications. Don’t just give your doctor a list of every pill you take, give one to your pharmacist as well.
- Write it down. Whenever you’re told warning signs to look out for, write them down. You want to be sure you remember everything you’re told about whatever medication you’re taking.
- Always use the same pharmacy. It’s the best way to ensure an expert has a full list of all your medications.
- Read the package insert. This can sometimes be daunting, and not only because it’s in such small print. However, the package insert will warn of possible side effects and known interactions. If you don’t know what a term, like tachycardia, means, just ask. You’re not being silly, you’re being smart.
Drug complications go up as the number of medications you take go up. But it’s within your power to get the information that will help keep you safe.