June 16, 2023 – Joanne Lynn, MD, has lost track of  the number of times in her 40 years as a geriatrician she’s seen a new patient come to her office carrying a bucket full of prescription medications – many of which they don’t need.

Lynn, who is on the faculty of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC, recalled one woman who unwittingly was taking two blood pressure medications with different names. 

“The risks included all the side effects overdosing carries,” Lynn said, ranging from blurred vision and crankiness to organ failure and even death. 

For doctors with patients who don’t know they’re taking too much of a medication, “you wonder whether the drug is causing the health problems, and it’s a symptom of the wrong medication,” rather than a symptom of an undiagnosed illness, she said.  

Many adults over age 65 with chronic conditions may be on too many medications and could benefit from a medication review with their primary care doctor. Patients often assume their health providers check for drug interactions or assess if a medication is no longer needed, and will catch extra prescriptions. That could be a risky assumption. 

Some doctors may prescribe yet another prescription to manage the side effects of an unnecessary drug, instead of doing a medication review and potentially “deprescribing” or discontinuing, a treatment that’s no longer needed. 

About 57% of people age 65 years or older take five or more medications regularly – a concept known as polypharmacy, a study published 2020 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society shows. While doctors prescribe drugs to help patients manage various ailments, as a list of medications grows, so do potential complications. 

An older adult might forget to tell their doctor what they’re taking, or maybe they don’t even know what they’re taking or why, Lynn said.   

“In some cases, a doctor just added a drug to treat something, not realizing they were already taking something else for it,” she said. “Of course, the situation of whether these patients can even afford all these drugs matters a lot, too.”

 Some older adults may pick and choose which medications to take based on cost, not knowing which prescriptions are necessary, Lynn said.

Finding the “Right Balance”

Indeed, if given the option, up to 80% of older adults ages 50 to 80 would be open to stopping one or more of their prescribed medications, according to a 2023 poll by researchers at the University of Michigan

“A lot of drugs that people take might have been appropriate at one point, but might have outlived their usefulness for that individual,” said Michael Steinman, MD, a professor of medicine and a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-principal investigator of the U.S. Deprescribing Research Network, a doctor group focused on improving medication use for older adults.

“Having fewer medications can actually be beneficial,” he said. “You can take too many medications; you can take too few. The optimal thing is finding what is the right balance for you.”

Defining how many medications is too many depends on each person, which is why caregivers and older adults can ask their doctor for a review of medications that have multiplied over time. 

By reevaluating their medications, older adults can actually lower their chances of potentially harmful side effects, and avoid the spiral of being prescribed even more medications, said Sarah Vordenberg, PharmD, MPH, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Pharmacy, in Ann Arbor. 

“It’s not really the number of medications, it’s [about] are they inappropriate or unnecessary medications for a patient,” she said.

Patients and caregivers can ask for an honest conversation with their doctor. The University of Michigan poll found that more than 90% of older adults who took prescription medications expected their health care provider to review their medicines during a regular visit. 

But doctors often need prompting from patients to start a review. 

“The clinical inertia, or maintaining the status quo, unfortunately is a lot of times easier than having time-intensive conversations,” Vordenberg said.

Ask Questions

Sara Merwin spent many years helping manage her parents’ medical appointments and health as they transitioned from living independently in Colorado to a retirement community and finally a nursing home. Merwin, co-author of The Informed Patient, said her father was taking a long list of medications, and she often asked his primary care doctor for a medication review. 

“I felt that my father at his age and his frailty didn’t need as many meds as he was on,” said Merwin, who lives in Long Island, NY. “So we went over his meds, and I asked, ‘Does he really need to be on this?’ ‘Does he really need to be on that?’”

She questioned one medication in particular, a statin to lower his cholesterol and risk of a heart attack. 

“I thought possibly the statin was causing some myalgia, some muscle aches in his legs, which is why I advocated for coming off it,” she said. 

The primary care doctor discontinued the anti-cholesterol drug. 

Local pharmacies can also serve as a starting point for older adults and caregivers, where a pharmacist can give them more information on whether a particular combination of the medications taken may be harmful. In states that allow for pharmacists to prescribe some medications, pharmacists may be able to consolidate some of the medications or advise that a patient stop taking one or more, Vordenberg said. 

“All pharmacists have the training to do a comprehensive medication review,” she said. “All pharmacists have the ability to follow up with the patient to find out how the deprescribing is going.”

Merwin’s parents received their prescriptions from a “small mom-and-pop pharmacy, where they were on a first-name basis with the pharmacist who really looked out for them. So they had that expertise available to them,” she said.

With information in hand on potentially unnecessary medications, the work of shedding medications should be done along with health care providers, some of whom prescribed the medications in the first place.

Many older adults live in geographically isolated areas without pharmacies, or receive prescriptions from mail-order pharmacies. In this case, Medicare plans offer free medication reviews with a doctor or pharmacist – known as a medication therapy management program – and provide recommendations for taking each drug.  

Merwin’s father died in early 2020. She sometimes questions whether he should have stayed on the statin for longer, or if the doctor agreed too quickly without doing more research. But overall, she doesn’t regret raising the question with his health care providers, and she advises other caregivers and older adults to pay attention to medication lists. 

“It’s dangerous to be passive when it comes to one’s health care now,” Merwin said. “That’s a difficult message for older adults to hear because they have grown up with the primacy of the doctor and the authority of the doctor, as opposed to it being a collaborative relationship.”