Although adults aged 65 and older make up about 13 per cent of Canada’s population, they consume 20 to 40 per cent of all prescription drugs and 25 per cent of all over-the-counter drugs. Older adults are also more likely than younger adults to take more than one medication at a time. Less than one-tenth of older adults take no medication at all.
Older adults usually take medications as prescribed. However, problems can arise if they forget to take their medications, share medications with others or get confused about what to take or when. Some may try to treat their medical conditions on their own by taking more or less of a medication than prescribed, or by taking medications that are not prescribed.
How medications affect older adults
As people age, they become more sensitive to the effects of medications. Even when taken as prescribed or as indicated on the box or bottle, medications can affect people in ways that weren’t intended, for example:
- When more than one medication is taken at a time, there is a risk of medication interactions. When medications interact, they may not work as well, or the interaction may cause other problems.
- Most of the medications taken by older adults should not be taken with alcohol, even in small amounts. When taken with alcohol, some medications don’t work well and the health problems the medications were taken for won’t be treated properly. Other medications have an increased effect when taken with alcohol, causing slurring of speech, sleepiness, stumbling and falls. Drinking alcohol while taking medications can be dangerous.
- The effectiveness of medications can also be affected by other drugs, such as herbal remedies, caffeine in coffee, nicotine in cigarettes, and other drugs, such as marijuana. It is wise to check with a doctor or pharmacist before mixing medications with other drugs.
- All medications have side-effects. Some may be unpleasant, such as constipation, dry mouth or itchiness. Check with a doctor or pharmacist about possible side-effects before starting a medication. Since everyone responds slightly differently to a medication, it is important to report any side-effects you experience to your doctor. This way your doctor can work to ensure you get the beneﬁts of a medication with as few side effects as possible.
- Medications can have more serious adverse effects, which can be dangerous, such as causing unsteadiness and confusion and leading to falls, delirium or worsened depression. The risk of adverse effects may be highest when starting, increasing or stopping a treatment, or when combining treatments. If you experience any possible adverse effects, see your doctor immediately.
- Long-term regular use of some medications prescribed for anxiety, sleep problems or pain can lead to drug dependence, also known as addiction. People who are addicted feel they need to take the medication, even when it causes problems in their lives; on the other hand, some people avoid taking adequate medication treatment because of a fear of becoming addicted.
What are the signs of medication problems?
Signs of medication side-effects, adverse effects, interactions or misuse include the following:
- slurred speech
- increased confusion
- lack of energy or sleepiness
- changes in mood
- stumbling, falls
- new medical symptoms following the start of a medication
- not participating as much in activities you used to enjoy
- neglect of personal care.
These signs are sometimes mistaken for signs of aging.