Polypharmacy is the use of multiple medications, typically five or more. Polypharmacy is most common among older adults (aged 65+), those with multiple chronic conditions, or adults with intellectual disabilities. It can be challenging for patients, their caregivers, and their healthcare providers. It may be hard for you or your caregiver to manage multiple medications. It’s also difficult for doctors to monitor the effects of the medications. The more medications you take, the more likely problems are to occur. It’s easier to make mistakes when trying to manage several different drugs, potentially leading to unintentional nonadherence.
Healthcare teams should work together to avoid situations where patients are overloaded with the number of prescribed medications except when absolutely necessary, and help set patients up for success with sorted pillboxes or alert apps.
What the statistics show
Polypharmacy can result in adverse drug events (side effects) and drug interactions. Adverse drug events account for nearly 700,000 emergency department visits and 100,000 hospitalizations each year, and the likelihood of experiencing a medication adverse event or interaction increases with the more medicines you take. In fact, the estimated incidence of drug interactions rises from 6% in patients taking two medications a day to as high as 50% in patients taking five a day.
Older adults and Polypharmacy
As older Americans (age 65+) tend to suffer from the most chronic conditions and see a broad number of medical specialists, they are at the highest risk for polypharmacy. Polypharmacy particularly increases the risk of adverse drug events in the older adult population such as falls, confusion, and functional decline. Furthermore, dementia or difficulty remember in older patients can be a contributing factor leading to polypharmacy and non-adherence. This occurs when they can’t remember if they are taking a medication that has been prescribed, not remembering to take any of their medications as prescribed, and difficulty in keeping track of multiple medications.
Yet, polypharmacy-related side effects or drug interaction symptoms can sometimes be overlooked or misdiagnosed because they are often confused with the normal aging process.