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Aging Gracefully: Reducing the Risks of Polypharmacy

Image for polypharmacy articleIt is no secret that we are living longer. Unfortunately, we are not necessarily living healthier. More and more people have one or more health issues. Many of which are managed by one or more medicines.

These medicines may help to keep health and put off further sickness. But, the more medicine you take, the greater the risk of drug interactions. This is a growing risk among the older adults in the US.

What Is Polypharmacy?    TOP

Polypharmacy is the use of many medicines at the same time. This can result in a slow buildup of side effects. Problems may happen with:

  • Doses that are too high
  • Wrong prescription or prescription is not filled right
  • Medicines that interact with other medicine
  • Supplements or herbal treatment that interact with medicine

It can lead to a bad response to drugs. Treatment may become less useful or stopped. It may also cause other problems that need more care.

It can also be hard to catch signs of some medicine interactions. Symptoms can differ based on the medicine involved. They may also be very common signs, such as:

  • Tiredness, sleepiness, or decreased alertness
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or incontinence
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Falls
  • Depression or lack of interest in your usual activities
  • Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations that you see or hear
  • Anxiety or easily excited
  • Dizziness
  • Decrease interest or ability for sex

These symptoms may be mistaken as common aging issues.

Are You at Risk for Harm by Polypharmacy?    TOP

These 10 questions will help you check your risk. If you answer yes to any of these, you may be at risk for medicine interaction.

  • Do you take 5 or more prescription medicines?
  • Do you take herbs, vitamins, other dietary supplements, or OTC medicines?
  • Do you get your prescription filled at more than one pharmacy?
  • Is more than one doctor prescribing your medicines?
  • Do you take your medicines more than once a day?
  • Do you have trouble opening your medicine bottles?
  • Do you have poor eyesight or hearing?
  • Do you live alone?
  • Do you forget to take your medicines?

Talk to your doctor or your pharmacist about all your medicine. Mae sure to include any supplements or herbs you are taking as well.

Top 10 Tips for Reducing the Risks of Polypharmacy    TOP

The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your risk. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Make a list of every medicine you are taking. Include herbs, supplements, and vitamins. Update it after every doctor’s visit.
  • Carry your medicine list with you everywhere. Bring the list and your pill bottles when you see the doctor.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions.
  • If you have more than one doctor, make sure each one knows what medicine you are taking.
  • Ask your primary doctor if you need to take all the medicines on the list. Ask if the doses are correct.
  • Always read labels. They may help you avoid a possible drug interaction.
  • Get your prescriptions filled at the same pharmacy, each time.
  • Learn the names of your medicines. Know why you take them.
  • Avoid medicine like cold remedies that have a combo of drugs. Ask for help buying medicine. Focus on the symptoms you want to treat.
  • Never take a new medicine without knowing its side effects. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions.

Remember, if you are worried about your medicine, talk to your doctor. There are many ways that you and your doctors can work together to manage your health care.


American Academy of Family Physicians

Health Alliance Plan


College of Pharmacists of British Columbia

Health Canada


Are you at risk for polypharmacy? Health Alliance Plan. Available at: http://www.hap.org/info/formulary/polypharmacy_risk.php . Accessed on September 24, 2003.

How to avoid polypharmacy. University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Available at: http://www.med.unc.edu/aging/polypharmacy.avoid.htm . Accessed on September 24, 2003.

Patel RB. Polypharmacy and the elderly [abstract]. J Infus Nurs. 2003;26(3):166-169.

Symptoms of polypharmacy. University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Available at: http://www.med.unc.edu/aging/polypharmacy/symptoms.htm . Accessed on September 24, 2003.

What is polypharmacy? Health Alliance Plan. Available at: http://www.hap.org/info/formulary/polypharmacy.php . Accessed on September 24, 2003.

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