‘Multiple medicines’ side-effect risk for over-65s

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Two million older people are risking side-effects from taking multiple medications, a charity has warned.

Age UK says more than one in 10 over-65s in England take at least eight prescribed medications each week.

While many are vital for those with complex conditions, the charity says one in five may be inappropriate.

GPs said no-one should be taking unnecessary medicines but people should not stop taking their medication without first talking to a doctor.

Age UK says older people should not worry about taking many medicines – if they are appropriately prescribed and correctly managed.

But the way the body processes medicines changes with age, so they may be more susceptible to side-effects, including:

  • dizziness – which can lead to falls
  • confusion
  • feeling low
  • nausea
  • appetite loss
  • weight loss
  • weakness

The charity wants older people to be fully involved in decisions about what they are prescribed, and for doctors to regularly review what patients are taking.

Blister packs

Jane, 77, had been prescribed 17 different medicines, five of which have to be taken at least five times a day.

She has 10 long-term conditions, including epilepsy, high blood-pressure, an underactive thyroid, osteoarthritis and psoriasis.

Her GP asked for the medications to be dispensed into blister packs, with all the appropriate tablets for each day put into their own separate pack.

But this didn’t work for Jane and she stopped taking her medicines altogether.

When a pharmacist went through what Jane was taking, they found seven of the 17 could be discontinued. They also stopped using the blister packs.

Jane’s blood pressure is now under control, she is having better treatment for her other conditions, and she’s happy and more confident about the medicines she is taking.

Fewer pills’

Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams said: “Our strong advice to older people is never to stop taking any of your medications off your own bat but to talk to your GP if you have concerns and to ask for a review if you haven’t had one for a year or more.

“Everyone’s needs change over time and new treatments are always becoming available, so it is well worth your doctor looking at whether your medicines are the best they can be and, indeed, whether they are all still necessary.

“Most older people would agree that the fewer pills they have to pop, the better.”

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, who chairs the Royal College of GPs, said family doctors only prescribed a medication after weighing up the risks and benefits for the patient.

“Of course, we don’t want to see people taking unnecessary medications – this is not good for the health of our patients or for NHS resources – and it is normal practice for any long-term prescriptions to be kept under review and reduced or discontinued if no longer necessary,” she said.

“With many older people living with multiple and complex health conditions, prescriptions for more than one medication will often be vital and no course of treatment should be stopped without the advice and support of a GP or other suitably qualified healthcare professional.”

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