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Medicine Tips for Seniors

What special risks do medications pose for seniors?

As people grow older, needing a prescription medicine is almost as inevitable as gray hair and reading glasses. Two-thirds of all seniors take at least one medication each day, and 25 percent take three or more. Many seniors owe their lives -- or at least their lifestyles -- to medications, but the remedies can also carry serious risks.

As a senior, you're especially vulnerable to the effects of prescription drugs. Not only do people in your age group take more drugs than any other group, you're also more sensitive to the effects of medication. Each year, in fact, more than 9 million Americans suffer side effects or have a negative reaction to medication. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help you take the danger out of your drugs.

How can I find out about possible dangers from my medication?

The first step to staying safe is understanding the risks. Read the warning labels on all over-the-counter medications, and ask your doctor about the side effects of all your prescriptions. You should know that two common medications, the sedative diazepam (Valium) and the painkiller propoxyphene (Darvon), are considered by many experts to be inappropriate for people over 65. If your doctor suggests such a medication, ask him or her for an alternative.

You should also ask your doctor if your medications can interact with each other. Drug interactions are a serious concern for seniors; according to the Council on Family Health, almost 40 percent of all drug reactions reported each year involve people over 60. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that one-third of emergency room visits for side effects from medicine among those 65 or older are due to three drugs: insulin, warfarin (a blood thinner), and digoxin ( a heart medicine). Talk to your doctor about how to take your medicines safely and how to detect any reactions early.

Also, make sure your doctor knows about every prescription and nonprescription drug you are taking, including herbal remedies and nutritional supplements -- and even your daily multivitamin.

How can I take my medications safely?

Follow your doctor's directions exactly. This sounds pretty basic, but as reported in American Family Physician, 21 to 55 percent of all older adults fail to take their medications, or take them at the wrong times or in the wrong amounts. Make sure you understand how and when to take all your medications. Have your physician write down the directions, if necessary, to be sure you will remember them.

If you have trouble reading labels, ask for large-print type on your prescription labels. A magnifying glass and a bright light can also help. Don't reach for your medicines in the dark -- it's too easy to mix them up.

Develop a system for keeping track of your medications. For instance, you can start your day by sorting your medications into separate dishes, one for morning pills and one for evening pills. (Your physician may have pill-sorting trays that he or she can recommend.) You can also try turning your medicine bottle upside down every time you take a pill. It's an easy reminder that you've already taken that medicine.

Always keep taking a drug until your doctor says it's time to quit. Stopping when you "feel better" can lead to unforeseen complications.

Check the expiration dates on your medicine bottles and throw out anything that's past its prime.

Don't take anyone else's prescription medicine or give yours to others.

Store your medicines in a cool, dark, and dry place. (The medicine cabinet in your bathroom is not a good choice. Try a dresser drawer instead.)

Contact your doctor if you experience any side effects -- including dizziness, constipation, nausea, sleep changes, diarrhea, incontinence, blurred vision, mood changes, or a rash -- after taking a drug.

Obtain a copy of your complete medical record to give to any new doctor or specialist you see. Be sure to remind them about any medications, chronic conditions, and allergies to medications of which you're aware.

If you have trouble taking your medicines at the same time each day, buy a timer that will go off at set times.

Further Resources

Food and Drug Administration/. Consumer Education: What You Need to Know to Use Medicines Safely. November 26, 2007.

Council on Family Health. Drug Interactions: What You Should Know. Federal Citizen Information Center. 2002.


Budenz, Daniel S., et al. Medication Use Leading to Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Drug Events in Older Adults. Annals of Internal Medicine. December 2007; 147(11).

W.B. Dalziel, M.D., et al. "The Top Ten Problem Drugs for the Elderly." CPJ/RPC, July 1996.

"Andreas E. Stuck et al. "Inappropriate Medication Use in Community-Residing Older Persons." Archives of Internal Medicine, October 10, 1994.

Fick DM, Beers MH, et al. Updating the Beers criteria for potentially inappropriate medication use in older adults; results of a U.S. consensus panel of experts. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003; 163: 2716-2724.

General Accounting Office. "Prescription Drugs and the Elderly: Many Still Receive Potentially Harmful Drugs Despite Recent Improvements." GAO/HEHS-95-152, July 1995.

American Academy of Family Physicians. Using Medications Appropriately in Older Adults. November 2002.

Wilhelm M et al. The Use of OTC Medications in Older Adults. US Pharmacist. 34(6):44-47. June 2009.

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