If you watch any prime-time network television you would have to conclude that America is a nation of sick old people. That’s because so many of the commercials focus on conditions of aging.

There’s Sally Field talking about osteoporosis and Boniva for bone health. You will see grandparents touting the benefits of Advair or Spiriva for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) so they can keep up with the grandkids. Then there are lots of drugs for enlarged prostates and bladder control.

The trouble with the message that there is a pill for every ill is that people start to believe it. We have become a nation of pill poppers, and older Americans are especially likely to be taking handfuls of medications. Although senior citizens currently comprise only 13 percent of the general population, they take more than a third of all the prescription drugs.

The more medicine they take, the more likely they will experience side effects. A recent article of the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 12, 2010) suggests that all these drugs are causing a lot of illness and death.

Some people find that their medicine affects mental alertness. One woman reported, “I am having brain fog and memory problems. I take Norvasc, Celebrex, Nexium, Detrol LA, Requip and Skelaxin. Could any of these be contributing to my problem?” At least three of her medications (Detrol LA, Requip, Skelaxin) could cause drowsiness or confusion, especially in an older person.

We frequently hear from readers of this column about their older relatives. One person wrote:

“My husband and I are concerned about his 81-year-old father. He has almost no energy, is short of breath and has digestive problems. They include: Nitrobid for his heart, Zantac for digestion, verapamil and aspirin for heart, lovastatin for cholesterol, prednisone for polymyalgia rheumatica, naproxen for joints, furosemide for excess fluid, Nasonex for allergies, meclizine for dizziness, calcium for bones, Detrol and Flomax for his bladder. Is he taking too many medications?”

Dizziness, drowsiness and digestive problems are common side effects from some of the drugs this man is taking. Trying to treat adverse reactions with more drugs increases the likelihood that an older person will experience a serious complication that may lead to hospitalization.

To help prevent drug-induced disasters in elderly relatives we have prepared a Guide to Drugs and Older People with a list of medications to avoid.

Whenever a senior citizen receives more than five medications the risk of interactions or a serious drug reaction doubles. Older people on multiple medicines are often taking inappropriate drugs that frequently land them in the hospital. Even seemingly mild side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness can be deadly if they lead to a fall.

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  1. Rachel

    I have a question for Joe and Terry. I know that elderly people react differently to many prescription medications. What about adult people (young adults, middle aged and seniors) who are smaller, than average, in stature. I am slightly less than five feet tall. Am I correct in assuming that since I am smaller than average that I have less circulating blood and therefore the concentration of any medication in my blood would be higher than another (taller) adult? I am currently on a blood pressure medication. I take half the tablet I used to take and my current dosage appears to be perfect for me.

  2. I. B.

    My husband at 80 yrs., and had had 2 heart by-passes, was on many medications. Toporol, Simivastatin, Nitroglycerin patch (.2) Plavix and DetrolXL. He was experiencing leg pain and weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and memory fog and “dumbness”. The Dr. took him off Detrol, and Plavix.
    He now takes 325mg of aspirin. Toporol, Simivastatin, and the Nitro patch were reduced to half. His symptoms are generally gone and he is feeling MUCH better at 82 yrs old. I might add that he has added a 5x/wk exercise routine. The Detrol almost had him diagnosed with Alzheimers.

  3. Paul43

    I think beau did it the best & safest way possible—the more weight I lose the better I feel.


    I am 79 1/2, I will not take statins, now, how about Welchol. I have a medium, 180 total chol and 58 LDL. I had muscle problems for years with statins, so I don’t feel that I want Welcol either. I don’t have diabetes. My genes are good, my weight is good, my BP is controlled, I exercise and east quite healthy. I take 5K fish oil plus other vitamins. What are the stats on Welchol. I can’t get your show here, but will be home soon.

  5. RMD

    Three Cheers for the People’s Pharmacy. We must recognize that we are an Instant Gratification country. The first thing we look for is the “Magic Pill” that will cure all our ills. Prescription Drugs should be a last resort after a Healthy diet, Exercise and Meditation have had no effect. All the Drugs taken by a patient, including Vitamins, should be reviewed by a doctor every 6 months. If you not feeling well after taking a drug, you should notify your doctor immediately, if he does nothing or you don’t like the Doctors response, get another Doctor’s opinion.
    Many Prescription Drugs will interact with OTC drugs and Vitamins, so your Doctor should be aware of all drugs that you are taking including Vitamins. My wife is a Geriatric Nurse and see’s over-prescribing a lot, usually due to the large number of different doctors that older patients see. Most older patients are way too sedentary and require more exercise. Many of our physical complaints especially being tired, are a result of our sedentary natures. Exercise is a dirty word in this country except for young people who use it mostly to socialize and make themselves “look good”. Older people claim they don’t have the time to exercise and after a while find it too difficult to exercise because they don’t do it. However even a short 5 minute walk every day will make a person feel better and after a few weeks they will find that they can increase the length of the daily walk. The key word is “daily”. More often than not our psyche goes from walking 5 or 10 minutes to running a marathon which is a big mistake and a recipe for failure. Slow daily repetition of almost anything in life (except watching TV) is the secret to success, whether it is sports, a skill, studying or exercise. Older patients are no exception to this rule they must avoid sedentary behavior like the plague.
    If they can do this, many of the prescription drugs they take can be reduced or even eliminated and they will feel better and have more energy. For those older patients who can’t stand or walk there are many beneficial exercises that can done sitting in a chair. With the exception of those drugs that you must take to stay alive, the less prescription drugs you take the better you will be mentally and physically.

  6. SNH

    Not only is there the cumulative effect of adding another drug for every malady (adding new potential side effect, and also potential interactions), but there is also the question of how drugs are metabolized in older people. This is a huge problem I think. When seniors develop new symptoms, it can be a challenge to sort out whether it’s an illness or polypharmacy.

  7. Father William

    Very pleased to find that you are addressing this issue of drugging the elderly, and even more so that you have taken the step of making a publication available warning of drugs that may have adverse effects for the elderly. However, I am confident that there is no easy solution to the problem of the acceleration of illness that comes with aging. My 85th birthday will arrive in a few days, and I have my share of age related disabilities, including loss of teeth, age related macular degeneration, a pacemaker, and adult scoliosis.
    The sad part is that I could have avoided most of these if I knew by midlife what I know now about such things as the importance of maintaining a high-ish level of vitamin D and the need to monitor magnesium in addition to potassium if you are taking “water pills”. That last is the reason I have a pacemaker, by the way.
    I find that the only way to keep ahead of the game in aging is to take personal responsibility for my health, spend time on the Internet in keeping up to date on the issues that are important for my own health, and also learning enough of the technical terminology so that I can make sense of research findings.
    the net result is that I am not dependent upon prescription drugs. But I have found that it certainly is worth the effort. For example, my AMD was supposed to get progressively worse, and instead it has improved significantly.

    • Caryl
      Rockford IL

      To what do you attribute the improvement in your AMD? I’d appreciate knowing.

      Thank you.


  8. beau

    I was overweight and on 3 different medications and a statin for Type II diabetes and high blood pressure and honestly lived in that “fog” with decreasing hope. I stumbled upon information that screamed “Lose weight to save your butt, dummy!” (okay, I’m paraphrasing a little and I think some of that info was on this site).
    I lost beaucoup pounds and the four medications that I replaced with natural supplements (vinegar, cinnamon, chromium picolinate, fenugreek, turmeric, etc.), and exercise. My doc said “Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop” (I haven’t). Besides the weight and the medications, I also lost the terrible side-effects that had resulted from all those meds.
    If the old adages “You are what you eat” and the ancient Greek physicians’ “Let food be your medicine” have any weight, we truly need to pay attention what we put in our mouths – including medication.

  9. Judy Z

    I thank the People’s Pharmacy for being a senior (68) on NO prescriptions. MSM helps my knee pain, raisins in gin helps my arthritic hand, fish oil and cinnamon brought down my triglycerides, and garlic is keeping my blood pressure in line. Now with early macular degeneration, lutein and other vitamins are hopefully keeping it at bay. I truly appreciate your program and newsletter!

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