People over age 65
make up 12 percent of the American population, but they take 25 percent
of all prescription drugs sold in this country. As a group, older people
tend to have more long-term illnesses--such as arthritis, diabetes, high
blood pressure, and heart disease--than do younger people. Because they
may have a number of diseases or disabilities at the same time, it is
common for older people to take many different drugs.
Drugs can be wonderful
tools for the care of people of all ages. Many people over age 65 owe
their lives in part to new and improved medicines and vaccines. But for
older adults, drug use may have risks, especially when several medicines
are used at one time.
In general, drugs
act differently in older people than in younger people. This may be due
to normal changes in the body that happen with age. For instance, as you
get older, you lose water and lean tissue (mainly muscle) and you gain
more fat tissue. This can make a difference in how long a drug stays in
your body and how much of the drug your body absorbs.
The kidneys and liver
are two important organs that breakdown and remove most drugs from the
body. As you age, these organs may not work as well as they used to, and
drugs may leave the body more slowly.
Keep in mind that
"drugs" can mean both medicines prescribed by your doctor and
over-the-counter (OTC) medicines that you buy without a prescription.
OTCís can include vitamins and minerals, laxatives, cold medicines, and
antacids. Both prescription and OTC drugs can cause serious problems.
Be very careful to take them exactly the way your doctor advises. To be
safe, donít mix them together or with alcohol without first talking to
You and your family
should learn about the drugs you take and their possible side effects.
Remember, drugs that are strong enough to cure you can also be strong
enough to hurt you if they arenít used right.
The following tips
can help you avoid risks and get the best results from your medicines.
- DO take medicine
in the exact amount and on the same schedule prescribed by your doctor.
- DO always ask your
doctor about the right way to take any medicine before you start to
- DO always tell
your doctor about past problems you have had with drugs, such as rashes,
indigestion, dizziness, or not feeling hungry.
- DO keep a daily
record of all the drugs you take. Include prescription and OTC drugs.
Note the name of each drug, the doctor who prescribed it, the amount
you take, and the times of day you take it. Keep a copy in your medicine
cabinet and one in your wallet or pocketbook.
- DO review your
drug record with the doctor at every visit and whenever your doctor
prescribes new medicine. Your doctor often gets new information about
drugs that might be important to you.
- DO make sure you
can read and understand the drug name and the directions on the container.
If the label is hard to read, ask your pharmacist to use large type.
- DO check the expiration
dates on your medicine bottles. Throw the medicine away if it has passed
- DO call your doctor
right away if you have any problems with your medicines.
There are also some
things you should remember not to do:
- DO NOT stop taking
a prescription drug unless your doctor says itís okay--even if you are
feeling better. If you are worried that the drug might be doing more
harm than good, talk with your doctor. He or she may be able to change
your medicine to another one that will work just as well.
- DO NOT take more
or less than the prescribed amount of any drug.
- DO NOT mix alcohol
and medicine unless your doctor says itís okay. Some drugs may not work
well or may make you sick if taken with alcohol.
- DO NOT take drugs
prescribed for another person or give yours to someone else.
Questions To Ask
Before leaving the
doctorís office, ask these questions:
- What is the name
of the drug and what will it do?
- How often should
I take it?
- How long should
I take it?
- When should I take
it? As needed? Before, with, after, or between meals? At bedtime?
- If I forget to
take it, what should I do?
- What side effects
might I expect? Should I report them?
- Is there any material
about this drug that I can take with me?
- If I donít take
this drug, is there anything else that would work as well?
The U.S. Food and
Drug Administration (FDA), Consumer Affairs Office has more information
about safe use of medicines. Contact the FDA at 5600 Fishers Lane, HFE
88, Rockville, MD 20857, or call: 301-443-3170.
The Elder Health
Program has free information about older people and medications. Contact
the Elder Health Program, School of Pharmacy, University of Maryland at
Baltimore, 20 North Pine Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, or call: 410-706-3011.