The New York Times1 reports that the average person in their mid to late 60s now takes 15 prescription drugs a year – and that doesn’t even count how many over-the-counter products they can take.
That’s a lot of drugs, especially considering that a survey released by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)2 Not quite four years ago, in 2016, reported that 75% of respondents – all over the age of 50 – reported taking at least one prescription drug on a regular basis.
In this AARP survey, over 80% said they took at least two, and over 50% took four or more. Compared to a 2005 Gallup survey,3 which showed that 52% of all Americans reported taking at least one prescription drug, it is evident that older people are taking more drugs than in the past.
More specifically, from 1988 to 2010, adults over 65 doubled the number of prescriptions they took, from two to four.4 The proportion of adults taking five or more has tripled over the same period. Yet despite the increasing number of prescriptions, more drugs do not contribute to better health.
According to the researchers, “Contemporary older people who take multiple drugs have worse health than those who take fewer drugs and appear to be a vulnerable population.” This results in a negative effect on the activities of daily living as well as increased confusion and memory problems.
The term used to describe a condition in which a person takes multiple medications, medications, supplements, and over-the-counter remedies is polypharmacy. As evidenced by the cited research, the clinical relevance and consequences of polypharmacy – of the elderly taking a handful of drugs every day – are far reaching as the aging population around the world continues to grow.
Polypharmacy increases safety risk
Polypharmacy is common in older people, especially those who reside in nursing homes. Some end up in a nursing home due to adverse drug reactions, which places financial and emotional burdens on communities and families. They can also lead to a significant number of hospitalizations with a high number of complications, increased death rates and excessive health care costs.5
Worse yet, you may believe that the federal government, medical associations, or drug companies have tested the effects that chemical drug combinations would have on your body, but unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.
Researchers report that these adverse drug reactions are responsible for up to 12% of all hospital admissions for the elderly. Yet even being in the hospital does not guarantee or reduce polypharmacy.
In a study,6 a team in Italy evaluated 1,332 hospitalized patients aged 65 and over and taking at least five drugs. They found that polypharmacy was present in 51.9% of patients upon arrival at the hospital; this figure rose to 67% when they left.
Take a drug to compensate for the side effects of another drug
One of the hidden dangers of polypharmacy is the chemical interactions that occur in the body when drugs are mixed. Another problem is the number of times one drug is prescribed to combat the side effects of another. This has come to be known as the “prescription cascade”. The New York Times writes:7
“A common example is the use of anti-Parkinson therapy for symptoms caused by antipsychotic drugs, with anti-Parkinson drugs in turn causing new symptoms such as a sharp drop in blood pressure or delirium which result in a other prescription. “
To this end, drug interactions can lead to hospitalizations on their own – and sometimes these interactions can even lead to death. The authors of a study8 noted a 50% increase in this problem when older people take five to nine drugs.
Dr Michael Stern, a specialist in geriatric emergency medicine at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, told a reporter for the New York Times that polypharmacy accounts for more than a quarter of all hospital admissions and would be considered as the fifth leading cause of death if it were classified that way.9
The use of antidepressants has doubled in the elderly
In a studyten published in 2013, the scientists looked at participants who were prescribed antidepressants by their doctor. Of those who were over 65, only 14.3% met the DSM-4 criteria for having had a major depressive episode – indicating that they were most likely overprescribed or not needed. The authors emphasized the importance of providing better diagnoses to patients as well as more appropriate treatments for their symptoms.
And again, statistics show that more prescriptions don’t translate into less depressive illness. For example, in a 2017 study,11 the researchers looked at data from 1990 to 2015 that had been collected in England, Canada, the United States and Australia and found that the incidence of symptoms had not decreased despite an increase in the number of prescriptions of antidepressants.
This is important because the risks associated with depression in the elderly include cognitive decline, dementia, and poor medical outcomes. People with depression in any age group also experience higher rates of suicide and death.
This is one of the reasons why the American Psychiatric Association writes that in some cases the treatment of older people “should be similar to that used in younger age groups.”12 Unfortunately, although treatment for depression may include psychotherapy and alternative treatments, such as combating vitamin deficiency, good sleep patterns, good nutrition and exercise, too often older people are only given medication – and that only adds to the multiple prescriptions they are probably already taking.
Studies link depression and inflammation
In related studies, researchers found that inflammation contributes to many chronic diseases, including heart disease and dementia.13 They also found a link between inflammation and depression. The authors of a literature review14 included the results of 30 randomized controlled trials with a total of 1,610 participants. Analysis of the data showed that anti-inflammatory agents could reduce depressive disorder compared to placebo.
Results of another major meta-analysis15 found similar results: Anti-inflammatory drugs were helpful for people with depression.
Yet another group of researchers16 found that people treated with immunotherapy for an inflammatory disorder had symptomatic relief from depressive symptoms. All of this points to ways to fight depression other than prescription antidepressants. For a discussion on how to naturally reduce inflammation, check out the articles below and consider optimizing your melatonin, add fiber to your diet and grounding.
Seek out the root of health
Before adding another prescription or over-the-counter medication to your daily regimen, consider seeking help from a natural health doctor who can help you find the root of the problem. Too often, medications mask the symptoms but fail to treat the underlying condition. A vicious cycle can begin when the first drug triggers a side effect that a second drug will be prescribed to treat.
Although your pharmacy computer can report some drug interactions, the chemical complexity involved when more than three drugs are prescribed makes it unnecessarily difficult to avoid side effects. The real solution is to take control of your health and introduce fundamental strategies to improve your overall health.
There is no magic pill that corrects symptoms, eliminates your disease and restores youthful vigor. However, there are lifestyle choices you can make that will go a long way in helping you achieve your health goals. Consider starting with the strategies in the following articles for progressing to better health:
- The science of sleep and sleep deprivation
- Autophagy – How your body detoxifies and repairs itself
- How to make fasting easier, safer, and more effective
- Incorporate nitric oxide discharge