Medicines: Use Them Safely Medicines: Use Them Safely
National Institutes of Health

People age 65 and older consume more prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines than any other age group. Older people tend to have more long-term, chronic illnesses — such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease — than do younger people. Because they may have a number of diseases or disabilities at the same time, it is common for older people to take many different drugs.

Many older people owe their health in part to new and improved medicines and vaccines. But using medicines may be riskier for older adults, especially when several medicines are used at one time. Taking different medicines is not always easy to do right. It may be hard to remember what each medicine is for, how you should take it and when you should take it. This is especially true of people with memory problems or dementia.

The kidneys and liver are two important organs that process and remove most drugs from the body. As we age, these organs may not work as well as they used to and drugs may leave more slowly.
Medicines may act differently in older people than in younger people. This may be because of normal changes in the body that happen with age. For instance, as we get older, we lose water and lean tissue (mainly muscle) and we gain more fat tissue. This can make a difference in how long a drug stays in the body.

Keep in mind that “drugs” can mean both medicines prescribed by your doctor and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, which you buy without a doctor’s prescription. OTC’s can include vitamins and minerals, herbal and dietary supplements, laxatives, cold medicines, and antacids. Taking some OTC’s together with prescription medicines can cause serious problems. For example, aspirin should not be taken with warfarin (Coumadin). Be sure your doctor knows what medicines you are taking and assures you that it is safe for you to take your medicines together. Also ask about taking your medicines with food. If you take alendronate (Fosamax) with food, for example, the drug will be less effective. Herbal supplements also should be taken with care. Gingko biloba, for instance, should not be taken with aspirin, acetaminophen, warfarin, or thiazide diuretics because it may increase blood pressure and the risk of bleeding problems.

You and your family should learn about the medicines that you take and their possible side effects. Remember, medicines that are strong enough to cure you can also be strong


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