January 16, 2012

AUSTRALIA: Medicine use by the elderly has skyrocketed

MELBOURNE, Victoria / The Age / National / January 16, 2012


By Julie Robotham


One-third of women aged over 75 take 10 or more different types of medicine a day -
a level at which side effects dramatically escalate.

MEDICINE use by middle-aged and older people has skyrocketed, raising the risk of dangerous side effects from interactions between prescription drugs, and inflating out-of-pocket costs for unsubsidised supplements recommended by doctors.

Nearly half of people aged 50 or older take at least five drugs or supplements on a typical day, the first comprehensive survey of the issue in more than a decade has found.

Cholesterol-lowering treatment use has increased six-fold since 1995, according to the federal government-funded survey, while the proportion of people taking an antidepressant has nearly trebled - to one in 10 of the 1600 participants. And therapies such as fish oil for heart disease prevention and glucosamine, derived from shellfish and used to treat arthritis, are just as widely used as the most popular prescription drugs, the research reveals.

''People are using them as mainstream medicines. That really did surprise me,'' said Lynn Weekes, chief executive of the National Prescribing Service, which oversaw the study, published today in The Medical Journal of Australia.

Women were bigger medicine users than men, with one-third of those aged over 75 taking 10 or more different types a day - a level at which side effects dramatically escalate.

Dr Weekes, who cautioned that people who took more medicines might have been more inclined than others to join the study, said all an individual patient's medications should be reviewed every time a doctor considered adding a new one. ''We really need medical practitioners to see if the benefits are greater than the risks, and if the benefit is one the consumer cares about,'' she said.

Compared with other developed countries, Australia had a relatively high use of some medicine classes, including the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins, Dr Weekes said. But most of the use was likely to be appropriate. ''We're in the era now of the baby boomers and that means people will be taking medicines to keep well and prevent illness,'' she said. Doctors frequently recommended some natural supplements but these had to be purchased at full price as they were not available on a subsidised prescription.

David Le Couteur, president of the Australasian Society of Clinical and Experimental Pharmacologists and Toxicologists, said much of the increased medicine use was warranted as it preserved the health of an ageing population.

But when frail elderly people were taking many medicines, he said, ''they may be and probably are causing substantial harm, in excess of the benefits''.

''Pretty much everyone over 65 is on at least one medicine. Being middle-aged or old is becoming a medical diagnosis,'' Professor Le Couteur said. He said policymakers should consider the impact of increased prescribing on the federal government's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which costs more than $8 billion a year, and on state-run public hospitals that spend a similar amount on medicines.

The health of Australians might be better served if the money were spent on things other than pharmaceuticals, Professor Le Couteur said, such as improved home care for people with chronic diseases or preventive health programs.

Copyright © 2012 Fairfax Media
____________________________________________________________
Credit: Reports and photographs are property of owners of intellectual rights. 

Seniors World Chronicle, a not-for-profit, serves to chronicle and widen their reach.