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Straight, No Chaser: Do medications work differently in older people?

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 15, 2018

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The elderly are living longer and more productively. Part of being able to do so is by maintaining an understanding of how your actions  affect you. One common action of many of the elderly is taking medications. You should be aware that medications have changing effects with aging, and there are many different reasons for that fact.
First of all, changes in our physiology due to aging make the effects of drugs less predictable and consistent than in younger people. A slower metabolism, increases in body fat and alterations in the function of the kidney and liver (major mechanisms for drug elimination) have important ramifications for what ingested substances will do. Thus, the elderly require more stringent monitoring of drug levels and effects, and you may find that your physician needs to adjust medication doses. This same consideration explains why side effects are more common among the elderly.
Be reminded the presence of other diseases brings additional effects and challenges. Just as with one’s own relatively diminished function, disease imposes the same type of changes onto the body. This can speed the presence of side effects and toxicity as well as adjust the effective dose of a medication.
Have you ever seen the individual with a small ‘army’ of medications? Think about it. The more medications one takes, the more likely drug interactions will ensue and changes in effectiveness in any single medication may occur. This effect incrementally increases with each additional drug one takes. Similarly, the more medications one is taking, the most likely one is to make a mistake in taking the correct medication at the right time. Now consider your independently living parents or grandparents. The elderly often are more prone to make these types of errors.
What can you do about this? Get organized, and get help! Those daily medication containers are good solutions to incorrectly dosing medications. If you’re especially organized, a log is great—not necessarily for you, but for the physician that will be trying to figure out why you’re dizzy or have an altered mental status if and when that occurs.
Talk with each doctor you see or a pharmacist about what to expect from the combination of medications you take; it can make your lives a lot less complicated.
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