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How to avoid harm from prescription drug overload

Written by Shannon Brownlee

Medications can treat symptoms, prevent disease, and even extend our lives. But can taking too many drugs be harmful? A new report from the Lown Institute finds that millions of older Americans are at risk of harm from the side effects of multiple prescription drugs, an epidemic experts are calling “Medication Overload.”

Over the past few decades, the number of medications Americans are taking has skyrocketed. Currently, 42 percent of Americans age 65 and over take five or more drugs compared to just 13 percent in the mid-1990s. Nearly 20 percent of older Americans take ten or more medications.

Taking five or more medications should be seen as a red flag for potential harm. Each additional prescription drug increases the risk of serious side effects, such as delirium, falls, and bleeding. Last year, five million older Americans – one in ten – sought medical treatment for an adverse drug event. More than a quarter million were hospitalized. It’s very likely that you or someone you know has experienced harm from too many medications, whether it is physical harm from drug side effects or mental exhaustion from managing a laundry list of medications.

Fortunately, patients, families, and caregivers can take steps to reduce medication overload.

While our culture reinforces the idea that there’s “a pill for every ill,” patients, families, and caregivers can and should question that assumption. The best way to prevent harm from medication overload is to avoid taking unnecessary medications in the first place.

Before adding another medication to your regimen, ask your doctor these questions:

  • What is this medication for?
  • How will we know when the medication is working or not working?
  • When should I stop taking this medication?
  • Can I start on a lower dose and see if that works?
  • Are there side effects I should watch out for if I take this medication?

If you believe that you, or a family member, are experiencing harmful side effects from medication overload, or are having trouble managing too many pills, ask your primary care provider for a “prescription checkup.” This checkup is an opportunity to discuss any side effects you’re concerned about, and identify any unnecessary or potentially harmful medications you can stop or taper. If possible, bring a full list of the medications you (or your family member) are taking to the visit.

Engaging in conversations about medications with your doctor is an essential part of reducing medication overload, but it is by no means the only solution. (For a full list of recommendations for addressing medication overload, see the Lown Institute report.) Health professionals, policymakers, and patients must come together to tackle this problem, for the sake of the health and well-being of millions of Americans.

This post was co-written by Judith Garbera health care policy and communications fellow at the Lown Institute and co-author with Brownlee of “Medication Overload: America’s Other Drug Problem.”

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