Is polypharmacy becoming an epidemic in the US?

The older a person gets, the more likely they are to experience health problems and the more likely their physicians are to write them new prescriptions. But in today’s reality of fast-paced healthcare and over-the-counter self-medication, older patients could be taking a potentially dangerous cocktail of drugs every day.

New York Times health columnist Jane E. Brody calls polypharmacy—the concurrent use of multiple medications—the “hidden drug epidemic among older people.” Citing the American Association of Consultant Pharmacists, she wrote that people aged 65-69 take an average of 15 medications each year, and those aged 80-84 take an average of 18 medications per year. And that’s just what they’re prescribed by their doctors—there’s no telling how many other herbal supplements or over-the-counter drugs they’re using on a daily basis.

Brody wrote that many of these OTC remedies are “unnecessary or used incorrectly,” which can lead to worrying side effects. Heart patients on a prescribed anticoagulant, for example, might put themselves at risk of major bleeding if they supplement their routine with an NSAID like ibuprofen.

“The problem of largely a result of our fragmented healthcare system, rushed doctor visits and direct promotion of drugs to patients who are ill-equipped to make rational decisions about what to take, what not to take, and when,” the columnist wrote Dec. 16. “This means it is often up to patients and their caregivers to assure that minimum risk accompanies whatever medications or remedies may be prescribed or taken on their own.”

Elderly patients are also vulnerable to what’s known as a “prescribing cascade,” she said, in which doctors prescribe new medications to fight drug-related side effects that they mistake for new diseases. She said patients should keep a list of all OTC remedies and supplements they’re taking and present that list to their physicians at each medical appointment.

Read the full column below: