Consider it America's other prescription drug epidemic.
For decades, experts have warned that older Americans are taking too many unnecessary drugs, often prescribed by multiple doctors, for dubious or unknown reasons. Researchers estimate that 25 percent of people ages 65 to 69 take at least five prescription drugs to treat chronic conditions, a figure that jumps to nearly 46 percent for those between 70 and 79. Doctors say it is not uncommon to encounter patients taking more than 20 drugs to treat acid reflux, heart disease, depression or insomnia or other disorders.
Unlike the overuse of opioid painkillers, the polypharmacy problem has attracted little attention, even though its hazards are well documented. But some doctors are working to reverse the trend.
At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable. Studies have linked polypharmacy to unnecessary death.Older patients, who have greater difficulty metabolizing medicines, are more likely to suffer dizziness, confusion and falls. And the side effects of drugs are frequently misinterpreted as a new problem, triggering more prescriptions, a process known as a prescribing cascade.
The glide path to overuse can be gradual: A patient taking a drug to lower blood pressure develops swollen ankles, so a doctor prescribes a diuretic. The diuretic causes a potassium deficiency, resulting in a medicine to treat low potassium. But that triggers nausea, which is treated with another drug, which causes confusion, which in turn is treated with more medication.
For many patients, problems arise when they are discharged from the hospital on a host of new medications, layered on top of old ones.