With all the attention given in the press in recent years to the devastation caused by the opioid epidemic, one might think that these pain-killers are the only drug crisis in America. But there’s another one, even more deadly and more costly to U.S. seniors: older patients are taking far too many prescription medications. One recent article refers to this crisis as “medication overload,” and if you’re a senior – or if you have a senior loved one in your life – you could be at risk.
Medication Overload is “As Serious as Opioids” for Seniors
We found a worrisome report on this problem here on the website of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). In the article which appeared in early July, aging expert Liz Seeger wrote, “Experts on aging are sounding the alarm about another U.S. drug crisis: Too many older adults taking too many medications.” In less than a decade, between 2006 and 2014, the rate of emergency room visits by older adults due to adverse drug events doubled. Seeger calls this “a problem as serious as the opioid crisis.” Tragically, however, the scope of the problem remains “virtually invisible” to people who should be on the lookout for a senior’s welfare, including families, physicians, and often the patients themselves.
For her article, Seeger cited this report released last April by the Lown Institute, a Massachusetts-based think tank. The 56-page report is titled, “Medication Overload: America’s Other Drug Problem,” and it reveals in comprehensive detail how what the Institute calls “the drive to prescribe” is putting older adults at serious, even deadly risk. “Every day,” the report states, “750 older people living in the United States (age 65 and older) are hospitalized due to serious side effects from one or more medications. Over the last decade, older people sought medical treatment or visited the emergency room more than 35 million times for adverse drug events, and there were more than 2 million hospital admissions for serious adverse drug events.” Based on their research, analysts at the Lown Institute conclude that “older adults are hospitalized for adverse drug events at a greater rate than the general population is hospitalized for opioids.”
Medication Overload Will Cost the Lives of 150,000 Seniors by 2030
Reporting on these findings for the AHCJ website, Seeger finds the statistics behind this devastating problem truly alarming. Medication overload, she writes, will result in 74 million outpatient visits. It will trigger some 4.6 million hospitalizations. Based on the Lown Institute’s findings, over the next decade about 150,000 seniors will die prematurely because no one was paying attention to the number and type of prescription drugs they were taking. The study estimates that this shameful situation costs our health system $62 billion annually, and calls medication overload “a critical health care issue.”
According to Seeger, the problem of over-prescribing drugs is “systemic” and has reached what the Lown Institute calls “epic proportions.” Over the past 20 years, the percentage of older patients taking five or more prescriptions daily (referred to as polypharmacy) has shot up 300 percent and now represents about 40 percent of all seniors. Over the course of a year, say some reports, about 20 percent of seniors will take 10 or more prescription drugs. As these drugs interact, the danger compounds: “The risk of an adverse drug event increases by 7 percent to 10 percent with each medication,” Seeger reports. The riskiest drugs seem to include many that are most commonly taken by seniors: blood thinners, diabetes medications, sedatives, and blood pressure medicines, as well as more “serious” drugs such as antipsychotic meds and opioids.
The Problem of Medication Overload Remains Deeply Rooted, Largely Hidden
According to the Lown Institute report, over-prescribing is a secret crisis with deep roots in our medical system. “The problem of medication overload has remained hidden largely because the practice of excessive prescribing is deeply embedded in American health care,” says the report. “Like the air we breathe, the forces that lead to medication overload are everywhere and yet difficult to see. No single drug or class of drugs is the culprit, nor is any single disease.” The report also says that it’s impossible to lay the blame, or the responsibility, on any single doctor or clinic. “Older people are prescribed drugs in nearly all health care settings, by primary care physicians, specialists, and other health care professionals such as nurse practitioners,” says the Lown Institute – and yet, “In most cases, no single health care professional is assigned responsibility — or has the time, training, and resources — to coordinate patient care, keep track of all the drugs patients have been prescribed, and protect them from medication overload.” One expert termed the result “a prescription cascade.”
The Lown Institute report concludes with a loud call to change the system. “Strong, coordinated, and immediate action is needed to stem the tide of this epidemic, which harms people of all ages, but especially older generations,” says the report. “We must address the pervasive culture of ‘more is better’ in medicine, conduct needed research to provide better information at the point of care, and light a path to minimizing the number of unnecessary and potential harmful drugs patients are taking.” Here at AgingOptions, we agree wholeheartedly – but we also advise you that it is dangerous and unwise to wait around for the medical establishment to remake itself. One of the most important steps you can take is to find a doctor who really understand the physiology and psychology of aging, and that means finding a geriatrician. These board-certified men and women will take the time to get to know you, and they’ll take a hard, professional look at your entire health regimen including prescription drugs. Please take the time to call us this week. Let us refer you to a geriatrician near you.
Good Medical Care and a Secure Retirement Require the Right Kind of Plan
Just as medical care requires a thorough and comprehensive strategy, so does retirement planning. Good medical care is important. So is good financial planning. But don’t stop there: what about your housing plans? Is your family on board with y0ur retirement wishes? Have you taken the right legal steps to protect your estate? There’s one retirement planning strategy that weaves all these “threads” together – health, finance, housing, family and legal – into a personally designed “retirement tapestry.” It’s called a LifePlan, and only AgingOptions offers it. We hope you’ll join Rajiv Nagaich for a free LifePlanning Seminar where you’ll get your questions answered about this retirement planning breakthrough. For a calendar of currently scheduled seminars, visit our Live Events page. We’ll see you soon – and meanwhile, age on!
(originally reported at https://healthjournalism.org)