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Seniors prescribed 'high-risk' meds

One way to avoid taking a high-risk medication

One way to avoid taking a high-risk medication or to know if you are taking a potentially unsafe combination of drugs is to discuss your medications with your pharmacist. Credit: iStock

When you get a prescription from your doctor, you expect the medication to help your health problem. But if you're older than 65, some widely prescribed drugs could cause a new, different set of health problems.

More than 16 percent of Long Island seniors may have been prescribed at least one "high-risk" medication such as painkillers and antianxiety medications, according to new analysis from researchers at Brown University. That number is better than the national average of 21 percent but higher than many nearby regions. The study found large regional differences in prescribing practices, with as many as 38 percent of seniors in the Southeast getting a prescription for high-risk drugs. Women were more likely to be prescribed a high-risk drug than were men.

"In the elderly in particular, we have to be really careful about the medications that they are on because they metabolize them differently," says Danya Qato, lead author of the study. "The whole message is, less is more when it comes to prescribing in the elderly."

Qato analyzed data on 6 million seniors enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans in 2009. She compared the prescriptions the seniors received with the "Drugs to be Avoided in the Elderly" list put together by the National Committee for Quality Assurance. The list includes more than 70 prescription medications, including antihistamines and sleep aids. You can download the list at bit.ly/ncqa-drugs.

The reason these drugs are potentially dangerous is because older adults generally have a harder time breaking down and absorbing medications, meaning they stay in the system longer. But the real bottom line is that seniors often can get the benefits of these drugs without the potentially dangerous side effects. "Many of these medications have safer alternatives," says Qato, who is also a pharmacist.

One way to avoid taking a high-risk medication or to know if you are taking a potentially unsafe combination of drugs is to discuss your medications with your pharmacist. With the fragmentation of health care between primary-care physicians and specialists, one doctor may not know what your other doctors have prescribed. "The pharmacist can see all the medications they're on, and it's not often that the physician can see all the medications they're on," Qato says.

Qato suggests calling your pharmacist and making an appointment to drop by just to talk about your medications. She says most pharmacists will gladly find the time. "I love talking to patients about their drug therapy," Qato says. "That's what a pharmacist is supposed to do, and that's what makes pharmacists happy."

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