Seniors: Are your meds helping, or causing you symptoms?

Date Published: 
January 13, 2012

More often than not, medicinal healthcare for seniors is built around managing symptoms, rather than finding and treating a root cause; or the root cause was found, and was being managed, but new symptoms arose over time, and led to additional prescriptions. Unfortunately, multiple prescriptions often lead to even more new symptoms.

“One third of all seniors are taking five or more prescription medications daily,” reported the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008.

Clearly, overmedication is a serious problem demanding consideration. If you’re presently taking several prescription medicines, you should look beyond the pharmacists’ and manufacturers’ advice about mixing meds, which are based on clinical studies of a large population of strangers, and consider how multiple chemicals may be affecting you personally.

When I see a care recipient pull out a long list of prescription medicines, or carry out a box filled with a rainbow of different pills, it’s impossible not to wonder if they’re all working together for good, or causing harm.

We’re a non-medical care provider, and I have no training in pharmacology, but it’s difficult to ignore the connection between what the care recipient is telling me, and the large amount of medication they’re showing me.

According to Dr. Andrew Duxbury, a geriatric medicine specialist, adverse reactions to medications represent the No. 1 health problem facing the elderly today. There are numerous reasons for the wide-spread phenomenon, including:

• Metabolic changes: As we age, absorption rates slow, medications may stay in the body longer causing higher risks of toxicity.

• Overmedication: Leads to worse drug interaction issues and increased side effects such as dry mouth, dizziness, depression and balance problems, leading to falls.

• Missed doses: Missed doses of necessary meds can cause unpleasant or dangerous side effects.

• Blood thinners and blood pressure medications: Anything that directly affects blood flow directly affects the speed and volume at which the chemistry in medicines reaches their targets. Blood thinners are notorious for upsetting how other medications work, and should be monitored often and closely.

Here are some basic preventative solutions:

• Twice annual doctor visits: Visit your primary physician at least twice annually and bring with you all of your medications.

• Do your own research: Most medicinal research is performed on adults younger than 65, and these are published and distributed for doctors. Seek out studies focused on seniors and, if they apply, bring them to the attention of your physician.

• Centralize control: When you have an assortment of specialists, they may not be independently aware of your history. They likely do look for drug interactions, but they’re usually simply checking an adverse interaction database and not considering your detailed history and present conditions. Make sure your most trusted physician is well aware of all of your medications and changing circumstances.

• Natural medications: Consider what “natural” remedies are available for everything from pain to blood pressure. Dietary changes and herbs may be just as effective, with fewer side effects. Discuss these with your doctor. Do not substitute these for prescription medicines without physician’s approval and close monitoring.

• Proper dosing: Use a pill storage device that makes it easy to follow daily dose instructions. For those with memory issues, make sure the primary caregiver closely monitors medications and leaves notes for others who provide respite care.

Our caregivers at Visiting Angels provide medication reminders, and closely monitor changes in the symptoms of our care recipients, and we let families know as difficulties arise. By educating our clients, and encouraging them to ask the right questions, we do our best to reduce the risks of multiple medications.

David Forman is president of Visiting Angels of Sussex, which provides living assistance services beyond medication reminders, including hygiene assistance, meal preparation, appointments, errands and shopping, light housekeeping and companionship. Call (302) 329-9475 for a free in-home assessment. More information can be found at