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Too Many Pills: Are We Over-Medicated As We Age?


How many pills do you take a day? Five? Six? More?

More than 40 percent of Americans age 65 and older take five medications a day, according to a 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and each year more than a third will suffer an adverse side effect as a result.

New York Times health writer Jane Brody recently wrote about the disastrous effects of over-medication on her 92-year-old aunt, who was taking seven prescription medications plus six more over-the-counter drugs.

Over-medication of the elderly is a public health crisis that compromises the well-being of growing numbers of older adults, writes Brody. "Many take fistfuls of prescription and over-the-counter medications on a regular basis, risking serious and sometimes fatal side effects and drug interactions."

A new set of research-based medication guidelines, recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), aims to help doctors prevent this problem.

The lengthy guidelines, called the 2012 AGS Beers Criteria, were last revised in 2003. (The updated version (in pdf form) can be found at

The new criteria identify 53 medications and classes of medications as potentially harmful to older adults. The medications are grouped into three categories:  drugs to avoid because of high risks of side effects; drugs to avoid because they may worsen certain disorders; and a new category of drugs to be used with caution.

Older adults run a particularly high risk of serious side effects because multiple health problems can make them vulnerable to drug-drug interactions, said Jennie Chin Hansen with AGS.

In addition, older patients often see multiple doctors for different problems and one doctor may not know what another one has prescribed.

The geriatric society's Foundation for Health in Aging has produced a one-page "drug and supplement diary" that can help patients keep track of the drugs and dosages they take. Patients should show the list to every health care provider they see. The form (in pdf form) can be found at

In other health news:

Mad cow disease found in California cow. The first new case of mad cow disease in the U.S. since 2006 has been discovered in a dairy cow in California, but health authorities said Tuesday the animal never was a threat to the nation's food supply, the Associated Press reports. No meat from the cow was bound for the food supply, the USDA said. The World Health Organization has said that tests show that humans cannot be infected by drinking milk from mad cow-infected animals. The disease is fatal to cows and can cause a fatal human brain disease in people who eat tainted beef.

Botox has limited effect on migraine headaches. The main ingredient in Botox may be modestly helpful for people with chronic migraines, a new report suggests -- but it doesn't seem to offer much relief for those who have less-frequent headaches, according to Patients who started out having headaches almost every day reported two fewer headaches per month when they were given injections of botulinum toxin A. But they also had more side effects, including weak muscles and stiff necks.

Americans' cholesterol levels are down, even as waistlines have expanded. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that only 13.4 percent of adults in this country in 2009 and 2010 had high cholesterol, compared to 18.3 percent of adults a decade ago, according to Considering that two-thirds of Americans are obese or overweight, and being overweight can raise cholesterol, experts think that increased use of cholesterol-lowering drugs has caused the drop.

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