The People's Perspective on Medicine

Don’t Let Older People Die Needlessly: Protect Yourself or Your Loved Ones

Senior sitting behind a lot of pill bottles holding his head in his hands isolated on white

Henry’s kitchen table is littered with drug paraphernalia. There are syringes, bottles, vials, nebulizers and a pill cutter. Henry is not a drug abuser…rather he is a senior citizen with a pill problem.

Like many older people, Henry has been prescribed so many different drugs it is almost impossible to keep everything straight.

He needs insulin and metformin for diabetes; digoxin, Lasix, warfarin and K-Dur for his heart; albuterol, prednisone, salmeterol, and triamcinolone for a breathing problem; esomeprazole for heartburn; and amitriptyline for neuropathy and fibromyalgia. In addition to these dozen different prescription medicines, Henry uses over-the-counter ibuprofen for inflammation and milk of magnesia for constipation.

Henry complains that he is a walking drugstore. It’s hardly any wonder that Henry has a hard time dragging himself through the day. Some of these medications are inappropriate for older people, and Henry is in his 70s.

Part of the problem is that Henry has a lot of health problems. But his physicians have not coordinated his prescriptions and he has far too many. Side effects and drug interactions have turned Henry into a ticking time bomb. Testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging detailed the extent of the problem over a decade ago.

Data have shown that more than one in six Medicare patients receive at least one inappropriate medication. In Henry’s case, amitriptyline can cause brain fog, confusion, dry mouth, unsteady gait and constipation and should rarely, if ever, be prescribed to someone over 65.

Hundreds of thousands of older people are hospitalized every year because of adverse drug reactions. Dizziness or unsteadiness caused by medicine is responsible for 32,000 hip fractures from falls. It is estimated that as many as 16,000 automobile accidents among elderly drivers may be due to drug-related impairment of vision, judgment or coordination.

Often, the most serious complications are indirect and hard to document. When an older person has a heart attack, it is frequently attributed to age or an undiagnosed heart problem. Ibuprofen, celecoxib, diclofenac, meloxicam and other NSAID-type pain relievers can all increase the risk of a heart attack. Rarely are older people warned about such a serious side effect.

As America ages, medical schools will have to improve the way they teach geriatric pharmacology. Older people are far more vulnerable to side effects from many drugs.

Until that day, however, patients will need to watch out for themselves. Often their grown children find they too need to know more about their parents’ medications.

We have prepared a Guide to Drugs and Older People that lists medications considered dangerous for the elderly as well as those that may contribute to confusion or falls. There is a section about avoiding overmedication so you don’t end up like Henry, a “walking drugstore.”

Here is a link to our Guide to Drugs and Older People.

Henry needs one physician to review all his medications. That person should spot medication mistakes such as amitriptyline or the scary combination of ibuprofen and warfarin that could lead to a bleeding ulcer. With careful supervision, it may be possible for Henry to simplify this drug regimen and reduce his risk of serious side effects.

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    About the Author
    Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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    I worked out a solution for me when I found doctors trying to pull that on me: “NO” and standing firm. I then look up natural treatments that have worked wonders. Before that, they almost killed me. My mother died because of listening to western doctors almost two years ago. I now have an MD that is monitoring conditions that were caused by western medicine. He knows if he pulls out his prescription pad I’ll tell him NO. I do have a background in biochem and nutrition (kreb’s cycle) so that helps.

    Every time I took my mother to a doctor, I took all her bottles of medicine with me. I always asked if she really needed all those drugs and all the doctors I spoke to said to just keep her on them. She was on a dozen at least and it frustrated me that the doctors would not take her off any of them. I’m a bit more forceful about meds for myself now. I have refused to start on several drugs that they were pushing. I keep informed of the side effects of pharmaceuticals and refuse to take any I think I do not need.

    I’ve known too many seniors who were drugged to death. They are cash-cows for the drug companies and the medical establishment. The seniors get too many drugs, tests and treatments, that may not even be needed. Sadly, the profits for a few, are put before the health and safety of many. Especially true of seniors, who are not informed about the risks, or given a choice in their own health care.

    While my husband may have died anyhow, his remaining years would have been happier without all the drugs. He was a typical case of the one mentioned above. Upon checking the side effects of all of his prescriptions after his death, almost all of them had the same side effects that he experienced for two years, gradually becoming weaker with time.

    I think it is just pathetic what our western medicine model has turned into, a pharmaceutical pushing machine! When was the last time you walked into a providers office and were not offered an RX? I remember 12 years ago, 1 month following a discharge from a lengthy 28 day hospital stay for a terrible statin effect, I was asked by my dr, how I was doing? I complained that I was soooo extremely exhausted/tired/fatigued from the moment I woke in the morning until I was in bed at night…instead of realizing that my illness was a statin effect (in spite of brain and muscle biopsies) he threw an rx Provigil, at me for narcolepsy!
    I went home and looked up this drug and told my wife, I do not have narcolepsy! And threw the rx away. As a former RN, I was always astounded at the laundry list of drugs many of my older patients were on….I thought, how do these doctors know exactly how pill A, will interact with pill B, and so on…I am soooo glad to not be a nurse anymore (Loved taking care of people, but I could never push these drugs anymore, and sleep at night).

    My father died because a doctor prescribed valium which interacted with a heart medicine he was taking. That was in 1988 and I thought that this kind of thing would become rarer as pharmacies computerized and such dangerous drug interactions would get flagged. I actually learned the cause of my father’s death the following year from a radio ad by a pharmacy which mentioned the specific drugs that my father had taken and described the lethal result as an example of what the pharmacy would prevent with its new computer system. One lesson I learned from that is to get all my prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy.

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