Dangerous Drug and Supplement Combinations Often Taken by Seniors: Study

One in six older adults use dangerous combinations of prescription medications and dietary supplements, which could pose a potentially life threatening risk.

In a study published by the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine on March 21, researchers warn that older adults are increasingly using prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and dietary supplements that may put them at risk of suffering drug interaction side effects.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted at home interviews with a sample of older adults between the ages of 62 and 85, from 2005 to 2006 and 2010 to 2011. The study involved a direct medication inspection of more than 4,500 participants. Overall, nearly 90% of participants used at least one prescription, representing an increase from 84% in 2005. Use of multiple medications also increased during that time.

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Use of at least 5 prescription medications at the same time increased from 30% of participants to nearly 36% of participants. Use of over-the-counter (OTC) medications declined seven percent, but use of supplements increased from 52% to nearly 64%.

Researchers identified 15 potentially life-threatening drug combinations with commonly used medications and supplements. About 15% of older adults were at risk and were taking one of the potential major interactions, and increase from about 8% in 2005. More than half of potentially life-threatening drug combinations involved a nonprescription medication or a supplement.

The study revealed significant increases in the use of statins, like Zocor, increased from 33%in 2005 to 46% by 2011. Zocor is the most commonly used prescription medication in older adults. Anti-platelets also increased from 32 percent to 42 percent.

Use of supplements in combination with other drugs was also up; omega-3 fish oils from 4% to 18%. Significant use of vitamins D and E also increased during the five year period.

Use of certain common medications with other supplements and prescriptions can be potentially life threatening. Using aspirin with Plavix, both blood thinners, increases the risk of bleeding and other complications. Combining warfarin, a blood thinner, with Omega-3 fish oil, increases the risk of bleeding for patients.

Researchers say the increase in older adults using potentially lethal combinations of medications has increased 2 fold over the study’s five year period.

Many patients try to improve their health by taking common supplements, such as fish oil, or treat minor health problems, like a headache with aspirin; but using these items in combinations with other prescriptions puts them at risk.

Many doctors fail to ask patients what other supplements or over-the-counter medications the patient is taking and most patients fail to offer the information during a doctor’s visit.

Researchers warn doctors should carefully consider the adverse effects of commonly used prescription and nonprescription medication combinations when treating older adults and counsel patients of the risks.

Factors that may account for harmful combinations may be due to the increase in use of medications, implementation of Medicare Part D, changes in treatment guidelines, and the increased availability of generic drugs of many commonly used drugs.


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