Four drugs commonly prescribed to seniors -- two blood thinners and two diabetes drugs -- are the cause of the most emergency hospital visits for Americans over 65, a new study has found.
An estimated 100,000 older adults are hospitalized annually for harmful drug reactions, but two-thirds of those hospitalizations are from accidental overdoses of just a handful of familiar medications, according to new research by the CDC's Medication Safety Program.
And in half of those overdoses, the patient was 80 years or older.
The four drugs causing the most emergency visits among seniors:
The blood thinner warfarin (also called Coumadin), used to treat blood clots, accounted for more than a third of emergency hospital visits for those over-65.
Insulin injections, to control blood sugar in diabetes patients, were second, involved in 14 percent of emergency visits.
Oral anti-platelet meds, like aspirin, accounted for 13 percent of cases.
Diabetes drugs taken by mouth were involved in 11 percent.
The results certainly surprised health experts, who had considered such typical "high risk" drugs like powerful painkillers to be more dangerous for older adults. But no -- those only accounted for about one percent of the hospitalizations, the researchers found.
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Study author Dan Budnitz, MD, director of the CDC's Medication Safety Program, told the New York Times:
"We weren't so surprised at the particular drugs that were involved, but we were surprised how many of the emergency hospitalizations were due to such a relatively small number of these drugs."
Although blood thinners and diabetes drugs are obviously important for patients' health, they share one common problem: They can be hard to take correctly. They may require blood testing to adjust a dose and there's often little leeway between a too-large dose and a safe dose.
In addition, 40 percent of adults over-65 take five to nine medications and trying to keep everything on schedule can also raise the risk for accidental overdoses or other adverse reactions.
Instead of worrying so much about less commonly prescribed drugs that are considered risky for older adults, there should be increased focus on the safety of this small group of medications, Budnitz told the Times.
"I think the bottom line for patients is that they should tell all their doctors that they're on these medications and they should work with their physicians and pharmacies to make sure they get appropriate testing and are taking the appropriate doses."
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