Kim Elliott, RN, Expert on Healthy Aging

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17 February 2020

The doctor knows best.

That’s typically our mentality when we are diagnosed with an illness or prescribed medication. However, that notion can get complicated with age and as more chronic conditions present themselves. These chronic conditions lead to more doctors’ appointments, varying treatment plans and a multitude of prescriptions.

The effects of taking multiple medications to manage co-existing health problems is called polypharmacy. Medication side effects and interactions can cause deadly harm, and seniors are especially at risk.

For March’s Optimum Life Continuing Education series, I am talking with Todd King from Omnicare to explain polypharmacy, its threat to the senior population, and what patients and health care providers can do to stop it. Polypharmacy: Solving the Mystery is available to nurses, nursing home administrators, case managers and social workers for continuing education credit.

What is polypharmacy?

The National Council on Aging reports that approximately 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease and 77% have at least two. Research shows that roughly 25% of people ages 65 to 69 take at least five prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions, and that number jumps to 46% for those between 70 and 79. Those numbers don’t include any over-the-counter medications, vitamins or supplements, which might also cause a myriad of side effects or drug interactions.   

There are three types of polypharmacy:

  • Overuse is too much of a good drug. For example, overprescribing the appropriate dosage or prescribing multiple medications for the same condition.
  • Underuse is too little of a good drug. For example, not optimizing a treatment plan or non-adherence by the patient.
  • Misuse is the wrong drug and/or at the wrong time. For example, prescribing a potentially inappropriate mediation or taking it incorrectly.

Some medications pose more of a threat than others. Closely monitoring for drug reactions, eliminating unnecessary or potentially dangerous medications, and optimizing non-medical treatments will decrease the risk of polypharmacy.

What are the risks?

Polypharmacy can lead to increased healthcare costs, increased hospitalization, poor drug adherence or increased side effects and drug interactions. In most dangerous cases, drug side effects may be mistaken for a new medical condition, and then treated with a new prescription.

These conditions can put you more at risk for polypharmacy:

  • Multiple doctors prescribing multiple medications
  • Multiple pharmacies filling prescriptions
  • Taking high-risk medications
  • Taking a large amount of medications
  • Poor diet
  • Failure to know about side effects, interactions, dosage or other adverse effects when ordering drugs
  • Failure to monitor drug therapy appropriately

Any of these issues can increase the dangers of polypharmacy, which includes symptoms such as cognitive impairment, frailty, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, weight loss, urinary incontinence, falls and fractures or bleeding.

How can you prevent it?

Patients and clinicians can work together to decrease the risk of polypharmacy. A few tips include:

  • Keep an up-to-date list of current medications including dosage and over-the-counter drugs, vitamins or supplements. Share this list at every doctor’s appointment.
  • Use one pharmacy to fill prescriptions.
  • See as few prescribing physicians as possible.
  • Take note of any adverse side effects and share these with your doctor.

Polypharmacy is complicated, but closely monitoring for side effects and communication between patients and physicians can lower the risk.

To learn more and to register for Polypharmacy: Solving the Mystery, visit Brookdale’s Optimum Life Continuing Education page.

The above content is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content in this blog.  The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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