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Are Medicines Making Mother’s Muscles Ache?

Q. My mother has high blood pressure and cholesterol. She takes lots of medications including simvastatin for cholesterol and atenolol, clonidine and HCTZ for high blood pressure. In addition, she takes a drug called Detrol for overactive bladder.

I fear she is taking too much medicine and worry that her increasingly frequent senior moments and muscle pains might be a consequence.

A. Your mother is taking a number of drugs that might be inappropriate for an older person. Simvastatin can cause muscle pains and may affect memory. Detrol may also cause confusion and forgetfulness, while clonidine is potentially problematic for senior citizens. Put all three of these drugs together and it does not surprise us that your mother might be experiencing “senior moments.”

Another reader offered this experience with simvastatin:

“I too have been having problems and side effects from every statin I have taken. I have trouble with my memory and word recall when I take simvastatin. I have had amnesia with Lipitor and leg cramps with Crestor.”

This person shared a somewhat similar story:

“Even though my cholesterol levels were around 190, I was put on Lipitor, which brought them down to 130 and seemingly had no side effects. Six months later I suddenly began to lose my memory and to become very confused. I thought I was getting early Alzheimer’s disease. Then I saw an article entitled, “Are You Losing Your Marbles?” It was linked to a medical article that said about 1 in 5000 people have extreme memory problems on statins–sometimes resulting in amnesia for short periods of time. I gave up on Lipitor and was better in a matter of 10 days, but sometimes still have problems focusing on a project for a long period of time. I wonder how many elderly people are suffering from this side effect that is never diagnosed. I am now keeping my cholesterol levels well in check with oatmeal, Cheerios and fish oil.”

Taking a diuretic such as hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ) and a drug for overactive bladder is a little like driving with your foot on the gas and the brake simultaneously. One study found that diuretic use in older women was associated with symptoms of overactive bladder.

We discuss all of these issues in detail in our new book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them. In it we offer our “Top 10 Tips to Surviving Old Age.” We also offer a list of the medications that warrant extra attention when prescribed to older persons. This would make a potentially life-saving gift for anyone, but especially for anyone over 60!

Your mother must not stop any of her medications suddenly. Eliminating atenolol, a beta blocker, could lead to irregular heart rhythms or even a heart attack. We think our new book may help you or your mother have a conversation with her physician(s) about the benefits and risks of her medications. Hopefully it will enable her to regain more quality of life without suffering negative consequences. A careful reevaluation of all her medicines by someone who understands pharmacology in older people is called for.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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