An Overlooked Epidemic: Older Americans Taking Too Many Unneeded Drugs

Jan 9, 2018 / Amanda Chase, Horsesmouth Assistant Editor

For decades, experts have warned that older Americans are taking too many unnecessary drugs, often prescribed by multiple doctors, for dubious or unknown reasons. Researchers estimate that 25 percent of people ages 65 to 69 take at least five prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions, a figure that jumps to nearly 46 percent for those between 70 and 79. Doctors say it is not uncommon to encounter patients taking more than 20 drugs to treat acid reflux, heart disease, depression or insomnia or other disorders.

At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable. Studies have linked polypharmacy to unnecessary death. Older patients, who have greater difficulty metabolizing medicines, are more likely to suffer dizziness, confusion and falls. And the side effects of drugs are frequently misinterpreted as a new problem, triggering more prescriptions, a process known as a prescribing cascade.

“This problem has gotten worse because the average American is on a lot more medications than 15 years ago,” said cardiologist Rita Redberg, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. Redberg and other doctors are trying to counter the blizzard of prescriptions through a grass-roots movement called ”deprescribing”—systematically discontinuing medicines that are inappropriate, duplicative or unnecessary.

Although support is growing, deprescribing faces formidable obstacles. Among them, experts say, is a paucity of research about how best to do it, relentless advertising that encourages consumers to ask their doctors for new drugs, and a strong disinclination—baked into the culture of medicine—to countermand what another physician has ordered. Time constraints play a significant role. So do performance measures that are viewed as a mandate to prescribe drugs even when they make virtually no sense, such as giving statins to terminally ill patients.

To read the full Kaiser Health News Article, click here.

 

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