Four Most Dangerous Groups of Drugs for Seniors

Pharmacist and a senior. (Jupiterimages)
Pharmacist and a senior. (Jupiterimages)

As we get older, our health tends to deteriorate. We need medications to control these adverse changes. Also there is a price to pay in old age if we did not take care of ourselves when we were younger.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine says that 40 percent of people over 65 take five to nine medications every day. What this means is that hospitalizations for accidental overdoses and adverse side effects are likely to increase among this group.

The study found that every year, about 100,000 people in the United States over age 65 are taken to hospitals for adverse reactions to medications. Most of the patients are there because of accidental overdoses. Sometimes the amount of medication prescribed for them had a more powerful effect than intended.

The four most common groups of medications putting seniors in hospitals are: warfarin, insulin injections, antiplatelet drugs to thin the blood and oral diabetes drugs.

Warfarin accounts for the most visits due to adverse drug reaction. It accounted for 33 percent of emergency hospital visits. Warfarin (Coumadin) is an anticoagulant – popularly referred to as a “blood thinner.” In reality, it does not make the viscosity of the blood thin. What it does is that it acts on the liver to decrease the quantity of a few key proteins in blood that allow blood to clot.

It was initially marketed as a pesticide against rats and mice. Later it was found to be effective and relatively safe for preventing blood clots in humans. It was approved for use as a medication in the early 1950s and now it is the most widely prescribed oral “blood thinner” drug in North America.

Insulin injections were next on the list, accounting for 14 percent of emergency visits. Insulin is a hormone central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body.

Insulin causes cells in the liver, muscle, and fat tissue to take up glucose from the blood, storing it as glycogen in the liver and muscle. When control of insulin levels fails, diabetes mellitus will result. Patients with type 1 diabetes depend on insulin injections.

Antiplatelet drugs like aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix) and others that help prevent blood clotting were involved in 13 percent of emergency visits. An antiplatelet drug is a member of a class of pharmaceuticals that decrease platelet aggregations and inhibit clot formation. They are effective in the arterial circulation, where “blood thinners” have little effect.

Lastly, diabetes drugs taken by mouth, called oral hypoglycemic agents, which were implicated in 11 percent of hospitalizations. Anti-diabetic medications treat diabetes mellitus by lowering glucose levels in the blood. There are different classes of anti-diabetic drugs, and their selection depends on the nature of the diabetes, age and situation of the person, as well as other factors.

Why do these four groups of medications cause problems?
-the line between an effective dose and a hazardous one is thin.
-they can be difficult to use.
-some require blood testing to adjust their doses.
-blood sugar can be notoriously hard to control.
-warfarin can interact with many other drugs and foods.

The authors of the article say that in order to reduce the number of emergency hospitalizations in older adults we should focus on improving the safety of this small group of blood thinners and diabetes medications, rather than by trying to stop the use of drugs typically thought of as risky for this group. And patients should work with their physicians and pharmacies to make sure they get appropriate testing and are taking the appropriate doses.

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