The People's Perspective on Medicine

Are Older People Being Overmedicated?

An elderly woman with a tableful of medications looking overwhelmed and confused

Older adults often have more medications than other patients. This is partly because aches, pains and serious conditions tend to accumulate along with birthdays. But it is also partly because doctors may be reluctant to discontinue medications, even when they might no longer be necessary. As a result, some senior citizens end up overmedicated.

Too Many Meds for Older Individuals?

Q. Do you have any information you can share about older people being overmedicated? I am very concerned about the number of pills my in-laws are taking.

Mom is on Detrol LA for her bladder, atorvastatin to control cholesterol, lisinopril for blood pressure and sertraline for mood improvement. Dad is taking twice as many pills. They both are showing signs of cognitive impairment. The checkbook is a mess, they forget appointments and the house is topsy-turvy.

Overmedication Can Affect Cognitive Capability:

A. Your in-laws should have a neurological assessment that includes the cognitive effects of all their medications. Tolterodine (Detrol) and similar medicines for overactive bladder can contribute to confusion and memory problems.

The prescribing information for atorvastatin (Lipitor) notes that the drug may be linked to cognitive impairment (memory loss, forgetfulness, amnesia, memory impairment, confusion). Other statins may have similar side effects.

You may find it helpful to review our Guide to Drugs and Older People with its list of medicines that may be inappropriate for those over 65. In one study, 89 percent of the older individuals being treated for headache were taking at least one medicine that is probably inappropriate (Hascalovici & Robbins, Headache, Jan. 2017).

It is also worth remembering that the basics of good health, such as adequate sleep, regular exercise and a balanced diet are just as essential for older people as for youngsters.

Here is Pat’s observation:

“My mom had what they called Alzheimer’s (not sure that’s what it was) and I always had a suspicion that her condition had to do with malnutrition. She lived alone for many years and after awhile, quit cooking and just snacked a lot. She was on medicine for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, then they gave her Coumadin. Add a poor diet to that!

“When I think that just being sure she had good food and the B vitamins she needed might have helped her so much, it makes me sad and angry, too. My advice to others is, if you have an elderly person in your family, do whatever it takes to be sure they eat well and take vitamins that are appropriate for their age and condition.”

Revised 11/30/2017

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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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    Avoid all prescription drugs and doctors is my mantra. At age 77, I do not do medical testing and refuse regularly. I do not do vaccines, either as I was exposed to mercury as a dental assistant. The way I figure is if you die, you die and the way things are today, what would I miss!!! I enjoyed my life and still do but preserving myself for quality of life is more important.

    We have an OVER-PRESCRIPTION problem. Instead of doctors looking for dietary changes they write a fast prescription and send the patient on their way. Doctor’s no longer LISTEN to patients. Drug reps are high paid salespeople who have no medical training, yet tell doctors about new drugs on the market. We need to become better consumers and not take any drug without researching ourselves!

    Adverse reactions to prescription drugs is the third leading cause of death!

    I have been on Lisinopril for the last couple of years that had the side effect of dizziness and light-headedness. It took a couple of hours every morning until my head cleared. Recently my primary care doctor, who had prescribed the med for high blood pressure, moved and the doctor that took her place (who is also geriatric specialist) during my first visit with him suggested I try to stop taking the Lisinopril as long as the result was that my systolic blood pressure stayed at 139 or lower.

    The first time I tried to stop the Lisinopril my blood pressure went above that reading. The second time I tried to eliminate it I did some research, which included information about using ginger or ginger tea instead. Within a few days of starting drinking 3 cups of pure ginger tea my blood pressure reading remains at systolic 132 and I no longer have the dizziness and light-headedness.

    Although I am 91-years old, I now feel 30 years younger and am now able to resume activities with a clear mind.

    I think most people of all ages, and in particular those over 70, bow to authority of physicians who are in business with pharmaceutical firms for profit. Trust is misplaced and patients turn their critical thinking skills off when intimidated by docs who don’t merit respect.

    This is an issue of great concern to me. It’s almost some twisted “badge of honor” to list the medications you’re on. and If you’re not on anything people make it sound like there’s something wrong with you. This is a very twisted view of health and wellness

    I’m surprised to see this heading (Are Older People Being Overmedicated?) because of the many many fine articles I’ve read on this very site confirming that THEY INDEED ARE! Because with every single med Rx’ed for “older” people, there’s a disturbing side effect such as insomnia or upset stomach, and a second med is Rx’ed to take care of that, and so on and on it goes. And most every one of those meds impacts cognition and physical strength/agility. Horrors.

    This is why I’m downright maniacal about taking good care of myself. I can’t even imagine taking a bunch Rx meds and falling into that horrible abyss. Hopefully I’ll meet my end falling into a cravasse instead, heli-skiing when I’m 90. Cheers from Seattle.

    I find it frightening that I am so often asked why I (at age 81) don’t take prescription meds. Doctors invariably ask me that. Yesterday, the sales person for my “reduced coverage” Medicare Rx plan asked me that. The reason is simple: drugs have side effects. So then docs prescribe another drug to take care of the side effects, which brings on more side effects, so they prescribe another…well, you get the picture. I saw what over-medication did to my mom, and I don’t want it to happen to me. I am fortunate that I found an excellent integrative medicine doctor who supports my view. He even supports my decision to take CBD oil instead of opioids for serious pain. Honestly, my experience has been that, in general, prescriptions cause more problems than they solve. There are exceptions, but all too often, drugs are over-prescribed.

    Polypharmacy is rampant. Once a person is on a product they tend to stay on that product even when other similarly acting, not exact, products are added. Often this is caused by a pharmacy calling in for refill authorization and the nurse simply says OK. One must be his/her own advocate and ask. If your physician doesn’t like your inquiries, you may want to consider additional alternatives.

    We are constantly told that it’s “old age” as the cause for most ailments and afflictions. Hogwash. Aches, pains and problems are more due to unhealthy living than old age. I don’t think the medical community understands how the body works. Big Pharma has a one-track mind and that is to sell drugs. Not to fix things. You can never take enough drugs to fix your body, but perhaps you can make lifestyle changes like eating better foods and getting a bit more exercise. I think we are being poisoned by food and our environments. There have not been enough longer-term studies done to discover the true worth of drugs, and if they are really helping our bodies. It is one big racket, and in the US we pay the highest price for over-medication with the least results. And with more seniors hitting the sickness trail everyday, Big Pharma is licking its chops.

    Several years ago I was prescribed Detrol. A few weeks later while on a cruise I came down with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, needless to say the cruise was ruined. I saw my family physician who recommended I see a Gastroenterologist, this doctor confirmed the diagnosis and told me there was no cure for IBS. At 75 years of age I could not accept this diagnosis so started researching what in my life had changed, the only thing was the addition of Detrol. I stopped Detrol immediately and about 7-10 days later my symptoms of IBS were gone. Do you know of anyone who has had a similar problem with Detrol.

    People are certainly being overmedicated. It has spread to many parts of the world, including Sweden where I live. Health Care” has become “big business”.
    It`s important to look for “alternative” (unbiased) information and try to make up your own mind.
    When my father was drugged with Mellaril (a neuroleptic) ten years ago, I started to look for information on the Internet and in books. I discovered that Mellaril was withdrawn in England due to serious adverse effects, but was prescribed in Sweden for another year.
    Most of the critical books come from the U.S.
    Here are some suggestions – please google titles and authors for further information.
    Graedon`s book – Top screw ups that doctors make – and how to avoid them – is a very interesting and useful book.
    I would also like to recommend:
    Are your prescriptions killing you? (Armon B. Neel and Bill Hogan)
    Selling Sickness (Alan Cassels and Ray Moynihan)
    Seeking Sickness (Alan Cassels)
    Overdiagnosed – making people sick in the pursuit of health (Welch, Schwartz and Woloshin)
    Overdosed America (John Abramson)
    Our daily meds (Melody Petersen)
    Bad Pharma (Ben Goldacre)
    The risks of prescription drugs (Edited by Donald W. Light)
    The Statin Damage Crisis (Duane Graveline)
    Ignore the akward (Uffe Ravnskov)
    The truth about statins (Barbara H. Roberts)
    Rethinking Ageing (Nortin M. Hadler)
    Mad in America (Robert Whitaker)
    The Anatomy of an Epidemic (Robert Whitaker)
    The truth about the drug companies (Marcia Angell)
    Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal – A guide for Prescribers, Therapists, Patients and Their Families (Peter R. Breggin has written many other books, for instance The Antidepressant Fact Book)
    White Coat Black Hat (Carl Elliott)
    Deadly Medicines and organised crime (Peter C. Götzsche)
    Drug Muggers (Suzy Cohen)
    The Devil`s Poison – how fluoride is killing you (Dean Murphy)
    The fluoride deception (Christopher Bryson)
    Bitter Pills (Stephen Fried)
    I think the Scottish doctor Malcolm Kendrick (The Great Cholesterol Con) is writing a new book. Meanwhile, visit his site drmalcolmkendrick.org. Some time ago he had an article – “A sorry little patient tale” about an old lady. There are many interesting comments, as well.
    Also, remember, there are many interesting video “lectures” and clips on u-tube. I am sure you will find some of them when you google the authors above.
    I think “Certain adverse events” is good (about a class of antibiotics).

    I will come right out and say it: because they can’t be troubled to do the research.

    I do not really understand why doctors insist on Statin drugs for people who do not have heart problems. It seems doctors are not doing their research very diligently.

    It is very scary when you read half of all people over 85 have some form of dementia and this is just accepted as part of aging. I dropped lipitor more than three years ago; however, it has yet to drop me as I now have virtually no short term memory. My doctor wants me back on a statin, because I have a total cholesterol of 318; since my HDL is 99, I continue to refuse one.
    I also take a slew of drugs and a bunch of supplements to counter the side effects from the drugs. Unfortunately, when I had my thyroids removed because of cancer, my hypoparathyroids were killed. I have to take a med called calcitriol, supplemental calcium, magnesium and potassium, because I now ‘leak” these minerals and HCTZ and spironolactone to try and hold onto the minerals. I had kidney cancer and now have one kidney, so it is all a delicate balancing act. The medications are necessary to save my life. As is lyrica, an anticholinergic, read cognitive impairment, and insulin, because I have diabetes due to medical error and it was diagnosed after nerve damage was done.
    I find it easier to live with MCI than the sensation of fire all over my body. The lyrica dampens that down enough that I can shove the rest into the background with all my other aches and pains; but I do find it necessary to take pain meds too, and, of course, thyroid medications.
    I am 76, btw, hoping I do not make it to 85. However, I take the best care of myself possible because I do not want to wind up tied to a wheelchair, not knowing anyone, as my mother did for the last three weeks of her life. She had kidney failure. After a change in supplements, my last labwork showed improvement in my kidney function. An angiogram last May told me my heart and arteries are fine. Knee replacement surgery in June was a huge success and most of that awful knee pain, after I fell in Dec, is gone. My house is a mess, I no longer keep a checkbook, doing all my banking online; however I can still think deeply, write my conclusions and reasonings down, so I don’t have to worry about short term memory loss.
    Years ago I began to study nutrition, because of my diabetes, can still shop and put mostly healthy, home cooked foods on the table, tho I do use some canned soups as the liquid in my crock pot.
    And I read, every night. No TV. I loved reading from the beginning and hope to until the end.

    My in-laws were both in their mid-eighties when I noticed they were both losing weight and taking tons of medications – 7 each! I made a table and kept a track of what was each medication for. Internists did not know what cardiologist or neurologist prescribed, so there were double or triple instances of medications under different trade or generic name – for the same ailment.
    To compound the problem, the medications and dosages for some medications were carried over from the time they both weighed much more – like beta-blocker or high blood pressure – were too strong and acting more like an impediment than help.
    Getting involved hands-on in the senior’s health care is the ONLY way to protect them from being overmedicated or frankly, damaged by medications they do not need. With a rising number of “baby-boomers” entering the “senior age” and all that it entails, we really need greater number of GERIATRIC doctors who would prescribe appropriate choice, frequency and dosage of medications the seniors are supposed to take on daily basis.

    My husband at 80 was put on Detrol. It nearly “fried” his brain. It is much better to wear pads than be “out of it”. After quitting the drug, he has come back a lot but is now at 85 on Areceipt & Namenda and is managing.

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