As people age so does the likelihood that medicine use may increase. This is because older adults are more prone to chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes. Treatment of these conditions usually requires medicine. And often, different medicines are prescribed by different doctors. This increases the risk of having a mistake with one of your medicines.
One study reported that an adult over the age of 65 takes between two to seven prescription medicines each day.1 Another study looked at the use of dietary supplements in adults 60 years and older. The results showed that 54% of older adults in the United States reported using one or two dietary supplement products. And, surprisingly, 29% reported taking more than four dietary supplements each day.2
Physical changes that are part of the normal aging process can affect the way your body handles medicines. For example, your liver and kidneys may not work as well to eliminate the medicine from your body. So, it is important to talk with your doctors when taking prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, herbals, and supplements.
Safety Tips for Older Adults When Taking Medicines
Drug interactions. Taking multiple medicines can lead to adverse drug interactions. A drug interaction is when one medicine affects the way another medicine works. If you are taking two or more medicines, including herbal or dietary supplements and OTC medicines, be sure to check with your doctor and/or pharmacist to avoid unexpected drug interactions.
Drug-food interactions. Food and beverages (alcohol and non-alcohol) can interact with medicines. For example, grapefruit juice should be avoided when taking cholesterol-lowering medicine such as Zocor (simvastatin). Ask your pharmacist or doctor about any foods or beverages that should be avoid while taking prescribed or OTC medicines. This information can also be found by reading the Drug Facts label on OTC medicines and the Medication Guide or leaflet that comes with your prescription medicines.
Poisoning. One of the most common causes of poisoning among older adults is accidentally taking too much medicine. This may be due to mistakes in dosing or accidently taking the medicine more frequently than needed. It is important to keep track of when you take your medicine. Taking your regular medicine at the same time each day and using a calendar may be helpful. This may be helpful in preventing you from taking extra doses.
Vision and hearing impairment. Older adults are more likely to have poor vision and decreased hearing. It may be more difficult to read labels on medicines or to hear information your doctor or pharmacist is saying. Because of this, errors with your medicine are more likely to happen.
Know what not to crush, chew, or split. Older adults may have trouble swallowing. This can be a problem when it is time to take medicines, especially if the tablets or capsules are large. It may be tempting to crush, chew, or split tablets or open capsule to take your medicine. But some tablets are not intended to be crushed, chewed, or split. And some capsules should be taken whole. Ask your pharmacist if it is okay to crush, chew, or split tablets; or if you can open capsules.
Keep a list. Write down prescription and OTC medicines, herbals, and supplements you are taking, and keep the list with you. Include both the brand name (if applicable) and generic name, why you are taking it, the dosage, and how often you take it. Consider giving a family member a copy of the list in case of an emergency.
Give the list to healthcare providers. Review your medicine list with your healthcare provider at each visit. If you see several doctors, it is important to review your list with each of them. Also provide the list to your pharmacist, who can identify any duplications or possible interactions.
Bring all medicines with you if you go to the hospital. If you need to go to the hospital, bring your medicine containers with you. This way, the doctors and nurses will know exactly what you are taking and will compare this to your medicine list. If you are admitted to the hospital, be sure to send your medicines home with a family member.
If you or a loved one are involved in any errors with medicines, we encourage you to submit a medication error report to our organization.
If immediate medical help is required call 911. Contact the National Capital Poison Center right away if you suspect a poisoning. You can call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 or get help online directly from the website.
1) Qato DM, Wilder J, Schumm LP, Gillet V, Alexander GC. Changes in prescription and over-the-counter medication and dietary supplement use among older adults in the United States. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(4):473-82.
2) Gahche JJ, Bailey RL, Potischman N, Dwyer JT. Dietary supplement use was very high among older adults in the United States in 2011-2014. J Nutr. 2017;147(10):1968-76.