By Yasmin Noone
The number of older adults taking and mixing multiple medications, without necessarily knowing the associated risks, is on the rise with almost half of those aged 50 and over using five or more medicines at a time, a new study has found.
The recently released report, A national census of medicines use: a 24-hour snapshot of Australians aged 50 years and older, shows that polypharmacy has increased dramatically over the last 17 years, with almost 90 per cent of older people now taking more than one medication a day, as prescribed by a health professional or taken without instruction.
The 2012 census by NPS, the Quality Use of Medicines service agency for Australia’s National Medicines Policy, is the first 24-hour snapshot of the medication habits of Australians aged 50 years since 1995.
The survey found that more older people are currently taking more conventional and complementary medications in order to live a longer, healthier life, despite the risk of adverse drug interactions.
The census results, published in the Medical Journal of Australia yesterday, recorded a three-fold increase in the number of medicine users taking six or more conventional medicines at one point in time, with figures up from around 14 per cent in 1995 to almost 40 per cent in 2012. The greatest increase, in this time period, was in the 85 and over age group which recorded a jump from 16.2 to 56 per cent.
The report also stated that antihypertensive and lipid-lowering agents were the most common classes of conventional medicines used.
Report co-author and manager of research and development at NPS, Margaret Williamson, said the study highlights that the use of and access to medicines has changed over time.
This trend, she said, was most noticeable when it came to complementary medicine use, with the census recording that more than half of all older medicine-users now take complementary medicines, such as omega-3 marine triglycerides (like fish oils) and glucosamine, for general health, arthritis, and bone health and disease prevention.
“People are thinking more about their health and they want to be healthy as they age so they are more likely to be taking medicines to prevent illness in the future,” Ms Williamson said.
“They are also saying that 65 is the new 45. People now have a different attitude to age and are taking more responsibility for their health than they used to.”
Almost 90 per cent of those who used conventional drugs were taking them on top of complementary medicines.
And although it is now common for general practitioners to recommend the use of complementary medicines, Ms Williamson said there are many older adults who are also self-prescribing without knowing the side-effects or risk of potential interactions with conventional medications.
“That is a real danger there,” she commented.
“…Some studies show that by taking more medications, a person can become unwell.
“In my personal opinion, a person’s quality of life is really important and is one of the [benefits] that these [complementary] medications offer older people.
“So people have to balance the [medication’s effectiveness in increasing] quality of life with longevity as quality of life is very important.”
Ms Williamson advised aged and community care workers to monitor the medication habits of residents and clients and encourage older people to work with a general practitioner or pharmacist to review their medications on a regular basis.
“Older people have to be much more aware of how to manage [multiple medications] and talk to their health professional about what they are taking to find out about the potential to experience drug interactions and adverse side-effects from medications.
“They have to have their medicines reviewed on a regular basis…and [if they have more than one doctor], ensure they keep them [all] informed.”
At the end of the day, Ms Williamson said, the main concern is not nessecarily how many medications the person is taking but rather the benefit and effect it has on the older person’s health.
“The patient has to be the centre of the medication review and their health and quality of life must be the focus.
“[Health professionals and aged care staff] need to balance what is good for the person with the adverse effects of multiple medications, and work together with the older adult to reduce adverse affects and get the full benefit of medications.”