(Note: A lot of the information in this post about drug side effects comes from a book we highly recommend. Robert Derlet, MD and Joseph Cohen, MD wrote BoomER: Emergency Room Survival Guide for Baby Boomers and Older Folks. BoomER helps families take charge of the health of their elderly relatives. They learn why they shouldn’t blindly do what they are told by the medical industry. Dr. Cohen and his mobile doctor business DoctorCare do a great job of treating some of our residents)
Medical science has produced some amazing breakthroughs. Today there are drugs for almost every condition imaginable. Even when there are new risks to our health, drug companies race to find a way to treat the problem. As a case in point, I am writing this in February, 2020 as the Coronavirus is spreading through the world. Vaccine makers are working on a solution. They predict they should have a vaccine in production by the end of the year.
Although many drugs are welcome relief, the drug side effects can be a problem. Especially for elderly people. There are some specific reasons why drug side effects hit seniors the hardest:
- Drug trials are usually conducted on younger people. The doses that younger bodies can tolerate may be too much for older bodies
- Older people generally take multiple medications. The cross effects from multiple drugs may make the drug side effects worse
- As our brains age, we tend to become more forgetful. Making sure the elderly take the drugs according to a set schedule is more difficult
- Elderly kidneys and livers don’t work as well at neutralizing toxins and chemicals
- Other chronic diseases can be made worse by drug side effects. For instance, pain killers for arthritis can raise blood pressure.
How to Reduce Drug Side Effects
The most important way to reduce the side effects of drugs is to take charge of your health, or the health of your elderly loved one. Here are some ways Drs Cohen and Derlet recommend to reduce the drug side effects for you or your elderly friend or relative:
Start with Non-Drug Treatments
Recent research is showing that positive thinking can have similar effects on people as drugs do. Without the drug side effects. Likewise negative thinking can open the body up to more disease. This isn’t to say that you can just ‘will’ disease away. It does say that you shouldn’t run to the doctor for a pill every time you don’t feel quite right.
Try activities that improve an elderly person’s outlook, and their health. That’s our philosophy at our assisted living homes in Surprise and Goodyear Arizona. It also is the attitude emphasized in the book BoomER. A better diet, exercise, social interaction, meditation, yoga, hobbies, and natural remedies can all contribute to a better attitude and better health.
Here’s a video of the Yoga classes for our residents:
“Start Slow and Go Slow”
Remember that recommended drug dosages are often based on younger bodies. When talking to your doctor about an elderly person, ask them if you can start with a lower dosage. Then maybe they can prescribe a higher dose if there are no serious drug side effects. And it’s not working at the lower dose.
Be Skeptical of New Symptoms (they could be drug side effects)
If an elderly person experiences a new symptom after they start a new medication, consider it a drug side effect. Talk to your doctor about it and have them prove to you it is not related to the new medication.
Weigh the Drug Side Effects vs. The Benefits
Some drugs have very little effect on the conditions they claim to treat. Those same drugs can have some big side effects. For example drugs such as Donepezil and Memantine are used to treat Alzheimer’s. The trouble is that they don’t do much. Research so far has not yielded an effective drug therapy for the disease.
Although those drugs don’t do much for Alzheimer’s, they do have some side effects. Some of the side effects include:
- Loss of Apetite
- Stomach upset
- Abnormal blood pressure
- Heart Arrythmias
A great deal of research into statin drugs has also found varying effectiveness and some potentially significant side effects.
Next time you are at the doctor or with your loved one, ask questions. Do your research on the internet. How effective is the drug? What drug side effects should you expect? Also consider the quality of life vs. the quantity of life. If a drug is just going to sedate someone all day long, is it worth taking?
Be skeptical of any statistics the doctor cites. The drug companies love to cite statistics in their marketing. Consider the following two examples of statistics:
- A new drug is able to reduce the number of severe problems for a disease by 50%
- A new drug reduced the chances of contracting a disease from 2% to 1%
See what I did there? It’s the same statistic. Just presented in two different ways. The first statistic sounds great. The second one makes you think whether it’s worth taking the drug. It’s all in the marketing!
Don’t Make Drugs the ‘First Response’
Doctors are under a lot of pressure to prescribe the ‘generally accepted’ drug as soon as you describe some symptoms. Let the doctor know you are not here to sue him if something goes wrong. Ask to spend more time with the doctor to see if there are alternatives. Have a discussion about all the issues affecting you or your loved one before reflexively accepting a drug.
Many doctors are under severe time crunches due to the volume of patients they need to see. It’s always a good idea to do some research on the internet prior to visiting the doctor. Then you can help guide the conversation. The doctor may appreciate the time you took and actually spend more time with you.
If the doctor just whips out a prescription as soon as you start talking, it’s time to find another doctor!
Beware the Specialists
People often go see specialists when the normal treatments aren’t working. Very often the specialists will then increase the dosage of the medication. They may also prescribe some newer medication without an established track record. Higher dosages could mean more side effects.
Specialists play an important role in helping people with aggravated issues. Just be careful about seeing them – especially for lesser problems.
Timing May be Everything for Drug Side Effects
Ask questions about when elderly people should take their medications. They may be taking three different medications for a certain condition. If they take all three at once, it may lead to a dangerous condition. Should the medications be spread out? Or is there a specific reason to take them all at once?
Are You Taking Too Many Drugs?
According to Dr.’s Derlet and Cohen, the probability for an adverse reaction when taking two drugs together is 13%. If you take seven or more medications, the probability rises dramatically to 82%! At least 100,000 people in the US are hospitalized every year for adverse drug issues.
We see people come to our assisted living homes with lists of 10 to 15 or even more prescriptions. Elderly people are particularly prone to taking a laundry list of drugs.
Have a serious conversation with you Doctor. Ask them if there is anything that can be done to cut down the list of drugs. Try to keep the list short. Our two Doctor authors recommend no more than five at a time. Stick with the essential ones only!
By no means is this article meant to scare seniors away from taking prescription (and non-prescription) medicine. There are a lot of wonderful drugs out there that have saved countless lives. Just be careful. Educate yourself. And protect your lovedone. By taking charge of the health of you and your family, everyone ends up better off.