Prescription drugs are a major element in the health care routines of many older Americans. But, all too often, confusion abounds on critical details like dosages and many people have only a vague idea of which medications are safe to mix.
Mistakes with medications can be deadly, so patients need somewhere to turn when their doctors are not available to answer questions. Among the resources available is a new book, The AARP Guide to Pills.
The book covers 1,200 prescription and nonprescription drugs and answers many of the most common questions about them. And its co-author, Dr. Bill Thomas, points to overmedication as one of the biggest dangers for patients.
"Americans just sort of automatically believe that more is better and most is best," he said
Another huge concern with prescription drugs is the potential for side effects, which often take patients by surprise and can be serious enough to lead to hospitalization.
"Prescription drugs are powerful, and they work because they are powerful," said Thomas. "And while most patients are fairly familiar with what the drug is supposed to do, very few people are really aware of what the side effects are."
Since many seniors are on multiple drugs, they also need to pay close attention to how well different medications interact. That includes vitamins and herbal supplements as well as prescription pills, so Thomas recommends that patients supply their doctors with a complete list.
"A lot of people think if it's only in a little pharmacy bottle it matters," Thomas said. "Even dietary supplements and vitamins can interfere with medicines."
In addition to making that list, Thomas suggests that patients bring all their pills, ointments and supplements to the doctor so they can go through the whole pile together. Patients are often surprised at how many of their medicines are expired or unnecessary.
"New medications often carry risks that we're not aware of right away," he points out. "It's very often the case that older, established, tried and true medicines can actually be superior to new medicines and in many cases can be safer."
And never be shy about carrying around those little pill caddies that are labeled by days of the week. They can prevent the problem of accidentally skipping medication or doubling up.
"Just because you are taking prescription drugs doesn't mean you're not living life," said Thomas. "Many times you are away from your medicines, away from home and a little pill caddy can help you keep your medicines straight."