Seniors represent only 13% of the population, but they take over 40% of pharmaceutical drugs in the US. In the UK, 45% of prescriptions are doled out to individuals over the age of 65 years. The practice of polypharmacy has never been more acute than it is in the modern era. So why are we drugging the elderly so profoundly?
With such a high number of the elderly taking multiple drugs, there have been few studies looking at how these drugs interact with one another. This is even more alarming in those over 65 because an older person metabolizes chemicals differently, with the chances of an adverse reaction to any one prescription drug rising to a reported 20%, compared with just a 3% risk in a healthy younger person.
In an article presented by Daily Mail in 2007, the tale of an 85-year old women staying in a nursing home would make the most stalwart among us shiver. From disguising drugs in the elderly woman’s meals, to not telling her loved ones exactly how many drugs she is taking, caregivers are challenged with taking care of the elderly in an increasingly aging population.
Gary Fitzgerald, chief executive of the campaign group Action on Elder Abuse, remarks:
“Old people can be difficult – they might complain about the food or something else, and it’s so easy just to dope them up and keep them quiet in a corner. These drugs can endanger the lives of elderly people. The problem is, if someone who is old suddenly deteriorates and dies, it is regarded as quite natural, one of those things that happens. A post-mortem is not usually carried out and the relatives are grieving too deeply to be suspicious that anything is remiss. It is weeks or months later, when they are thinking about it more clearly, that they realize there was something not quite right.”
So just how badly are we drugging the elderly, and why?
It isn’t just pain medications or high blood pressure medications that are keeping our seniors overly-drugged. In a recent study that looked at over 100,000 doctor’s visits among those over 65 years of age, doctors alarmingly prescribed psychotropic drugs almost twice as often as they do for younger patients.
Psychiatric drugs for depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions were prescribed to elderly patients, when arguably, they often could have just used a few sessions of counseling, or a visit from friends and family in their extended care or nursing homes.
The elderly population is booming, and seniors use the health care system more than any other demographic. So, finding safe, effective and appropriate treatments for their mental health problems is critical — for the well-being of a large number of people, and as a policy matter. In other words, the elderly are a perfect target for the pharmaceutical industry. They represent the easiest money made for an industry who arguably cares little for a person’s true well-being.