Are you taking more medications than you need?

October 8, 2019 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD

If you have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or other chronic diseases, you may be taking several prescription medications each day to treat your condition. And the older you get, the more likely it becomes that you’re taking more than one medication. In fact, approximately a third of Americans and Canadians between the ages of 60 and 79 used five or more prescription drugs during a thirty day period according to data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, people who see more than one doctor, for example a primary care physician and a cardiologist, orthopedist, or gastroenterologist, are even more likely to be prescribed several medications. One study found that 60% of people over the age of 65 have taken prescription drugs that they don’t need.

Taking several drugs at once, which is called polypharmacy, can increase your risk for adverse reactions like gastrointestinal problems, dizziness or lightheadedness and an increased fall risk, confusion, and sleep problems. There’s also the issue of over-the-counter drugs and supplements, which can interact negatively with prescription medications and with each other.

How to lower your risk of taking too many medications

To decrease your risk of overmedication, start with these simple steps:

  • Make an appointment to talk with your primary care provider and review your medications. Rather than raising the issue of medications during a check-up or sick care visit, if you take several medications, make an appointment with your primary care physician or nurse practitioner to specifically review your medications. Many people find it helpful to bring all the medications (prescription and over-the-counter and supplements) that they take with them to the appointment. Your healthcare provider can review the medications to make sure none of them are duplicative or no longer needed, put you at risk of interactions, or are a higher dose than is appropriate for your current age, weight, and health.
  • When you’re prescribed a medication, ask why. Whenever you’re prescribed a medication, ask the prescribing healthcare provider why it’s being prescribed, how long you need to take it, and what side effects and potential interactions with other medications you should be aware of. This can be especially important if you’ve recently been in the hospital and were prescribed medication when you were discharged.
  • Partner with your pharmacist. If possible, use one pharmacy for all your prescriptions. Your pharmacist can flag duplicate medications, educate you on side effects and adverse reactions, and review a list of all the medications you take to check for potential problems. Pharmacists perform these consultations free of charge.
  • Ask your physician about non-drug treatment options. Talk with your healthcare provider and ask if there are options other than medications that may be safe and effective ways to treat your condition. That could include lifestyle changes such as losing weight, changing your diet, and getting regular exercise, physical therapy to help with the symptoms of back and joint pain, or cognitive behavioral therapy to help with sleep problems, anxiety, and depression.