The average American in his mid- to late 60s today takes up to 15 prescription drugs a year, according to a stunning expose by The New York Times. This same news story reported this total doesn’t even count the number of over-the-counter (OTC) products senior are taking.
Here’s another disturbing overprescription statistic. Back in 2016, the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) revealed 75 percent of the respondents to one of its surveys (all over age 50) said they take at least one prescription medication regularly. In this same survey, more than 80 percent reported taking at least two, while more than 50 percent took four or more. From 1988 to 2010, adults over 65 doubled the number of prescriptions they took from two to four. The proportion of adults taking five or more tripled in these 22 years.
There’s a word for the concurrent use of multiple medications by a person. It’s called polypharmacy.
Statistics confirm polypharmacy in the U.S. is most common in the elderly. It affects 40 percent of elderly Americans living in their own homes. Some 21 percent of adults with intellectual disability are also exposed to polypharmacy.
Despite repeated warning to doctors to limit this practice, polypharmacy continues to grow because of the country’s aging population. Many other countries such as Japan are experiencing faster growth in their citizens of 65 years and older. In the U.S., the ever expanding number of elderly is a result of the Baby Boomer generation growing older. It’s also due to increased life expectancy as a result of a leap in the improvement in health care services.
Concerns about polypharmacy include increased adverse drug reactions, drug interactions, the so-called “prescribing cascade” and more expensive medicines. Polypharmacy is often associated with a decreased quality of life, including decreased mobility and cognition.
Polypharmacy is also linked to an increased risk of falls in elderly people. Some medications are known to be associated with the risk of falls, including cardiovascular and psychoactive drugs.
“Contemporary older adults on multiple medications have worse health status compared to those on fewer medications, and appear to be a vulnerable population,” one study said about the polypharmacy problem.
Concerned physicians point out more drugs don’t add up to better health — especially for the elderly.
Dr. Michael Stern, a geriatric emergency medicine specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, revealed polypharmacy accounts for more than one-fourth of all admissions to the hospital. He said polypharmacy would be considered the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. if it were categorized that way.
A persistent danger presented by polypharmacy is the chemical interactions that occur in the body when medications are mixed. Another serious problem is the number of times one drug is prescribed to mitigate the side effects of another. This is called the “prescribing cascade.”
“One common example is the use of anti-Parkinson therapy for symptoms caused by antipsychotic drugs, with the anti-Parkinson drugs in turn causing new symptoms like a precipitous drop in blood pressure or delirium that result in yet another prescription,” according to the Times’ story.
There are ways of counteraction polypharmacy. As per Dr. Joseph Mercola, a “focus on reducing inflammation and seeking the root causes of health conditions helps lower dependence on drugs that usually come with a significant list of side effects.”
Dr. Mercola also said that before adding one more prescription medicine or OTC drug to a person’s daily regimen, consider seeking the help of a natural health physician who can help get to the root of the problem.