Medications and Older Adults
When More Isn't Necessarily Better
Of all the problems older adults face in taking medication, drug
interactions are probably the most dangerous. When two or more drugs are mixed
in the body, they may interact with each other and produce uncomfortable or
even dangerous side effects. This is especially a problem for older adults
because they are much more likely to take more than one drug. The average older
person is taking more than four prescription medications at once plus two
It's not always bad to take drugs in combination. High blood pressure is
often treated with several different drugs. Many older people have multiple
cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal
cholesterol) and may need multiple drugs to treat them. Unless supervised by a
doctor, however, taking a mixture of drugs can be dangerous.
For example, a person who takes a blood-thinning medication should not
combine that with aspirin, which will thin the blood even more. And antacids
can interfere with certain drugs for Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure,
and heart disease. Before prescribing any new drug to an older patient, a
doctor should be aware of all the other drugs the patient may be taking.
"Too often, older people get more drugs without a reassessment of their
previous medications," says Feinberg. "That can be disastrous."
Older adults tend to be more sensitive to drugs than younger adults are, due
to their generally slower metabolisms and organ functions. As people age, many
lose muscle tissue and gain fat tissue, and their digestive systems, liver, and
kidney functions slow down. All this affects how a drug will be absorbed into
the bloodstream, how it will react in the organs, and how quickly it will be
eliminated. The old adage "Start low and go slow" applies especially to
Older adults who experience dizziness, constipation, upset stomach, sleep
changes, diarrhea, incontinence, blurred vision, mood changes, a rash or other
symptoms after taking a drug should call their doctors. The following
suggestions may also help:
- Tell your doctor about all the drugs you take. If you have several
doctors, make sure they all know what the others are prescribing, and ask one
doctor (such as an internist or general practitioner) to coordinate your
- Keep track of side effects. New symptoms may not be from old age but
from the drug you're taking.
- Learn about your drugs. Find out as much as you can by asking
questions and reading the package inserts. Both your doctor and pharmacist
should alert you to possible interactions between drugs, how to take any drug
properly, and whether there's a less expensive generic drug available.
- Have your doctor review your drugs. If you take a number of drugs,
take them all with you on a doctor's visit.
- Ask the doctor, "When can I stop taking this drug?" and,
"How do we know this drug is still working?"
- Ask a pharmacist what foods to take with each drug. Some drugs are
better absorbed with certain foods, and some drugs shouldn't be taken with
- Follow directions. Read the label every time you take the medication
to prevent mistakes, and be sure you understand the timing and dosage
- Don't forget to take your medicines. Use a memory aid to help you --
a calendar, pill box, or your own system. Whatever works for you is best.