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An Rx on how, when to take medications

Booklet helps senior citizens avoid problems

SHARE An Rx on how, when to take medications

Senior citizens often take multiple medicines for chronic health problems they didn't have when they were younger. And their body processes are changing as they age, which may reduce liver and kidney function.

Those add up to potential problems. Everyone, but particularly those who are senior citizens, needs to take special precautions when taking medications.

The Council on Family Health recently released an update of its popular "Medicines and You: A Guide for Older Americans." The booklet talks about drug interactions, the importance of communicating well with doctors, use of both prescription and nonprescription medications and more.

"As one gets older, body changes can affect the way medicines are absorbed, distributed, metabolized and excreted," said council president Robert G. Donovan. "The more seniors know about their medicines and the more they communicate with their health professionals, the better their chances are for avoiding possible problems with medicines."

It's a topic that can't be overemphasized, according to Wasatch Front pharmacists.

"The No. 1 problem, we call poly pharmacy," said Chris Sotiriou, a pharmacist at Broadway Pharmacy. "People see different doctors — or the same doctor — who give them a ton of different medications. You risk side-effects, interactions, adverse or drug misadventures."

The second most serious problem for senior citizens when it comes to medicine, Sotiriou said, is that many people don't realize their liver and kidney function has gone down "in a straight-line decline," which can lead to toxic buildup or otherwise alter a dosage's effectiveness.

Some drugs cause severe confusion, urinary retention or other side effects. If people don't understand the proper way to take the medication, severe complications can result.

"We see a few different problems with (older customers) that the younger set wouldn't have necessarily," said Joe Williams, a pharmacist at Apothecary West. "Simply understanding the directions might not be as clear. Sometimes there are concurrent disease states going on, like Alzheimer's, that may preclude them from understanding what's going on.

"And one of the other biggest problems is they're trying to manage more medicines per person than the younger crowd would be. It's pretty easy to get confused between medicines."

For example, a high blood pressure medication and a stomach remedy have very similar names. One is taken once a day, the other twice a day. And you don't want to confuse the schedule, he said.

The most important thing to do, according to the pharmacists and the booklet, is take the time to ask the prescribing physician questions. The booklet even includes a list of questions you might want to ask, from basics like how much to take and how often, to whether it's taken with food and how soon to expect results.

Patients should also be talking to their pharmacist about the prescription. It re-emphasizes the information and offers another chance to get questions answered.

Doctors and pharmacists can also offer suggestions on how to remember when to take medications, since it's not uncommon for an older person to require several prescriptions, each one taken on a different schedule.

It's also important to make certain that physician and pharmacist are both aware of any medicines you take, whether they're prescription or not. That means talking about vitamins, natural supplements, over-the-counter remedies.

With some combinations, it won't matter. But others will.

"A lot depends on the non-prescription drug," Williams said. "Some are not an issue or are a small issue. Some are a big issue."

Aspirin can cause bleeding, ringing ears and other problems. Tagamet has a lot of interactions. Benadryl can cause confusion or dizziness. The same symptoms can also be found in some medications for Parkinson's disease or high blood pressure. You certainly wouldn't want to take the prescription and nonprescription medications together if they cause the same negative effects. And the list of compounds with potential side effects grows.

Williams said that liver disease and kidney disease can drastically affect both prescription and non-prescription remedies, so it's important to ask questions and talk about what you're taking.

Without that kind of conversation, people with liver disease might think it's safe to take acetaminophen. It's not. They can mix nonprescription remedies with prescriptions that then become more potent — or totally ineffective.

Lots of pharmacies are solving one age-related problem by printing medication labels in larger typeface. That's made a big difference, Williams said.

To get a free copy of the booklet, send a self-addressed, 6-by-9 stamped envelope to Council on Family Health, "Medicines and You," 1155 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Suite 400, Washington, D.C., 20036. Besides explanations and suggestions, the booklet offers "My Medicine Record" and a tip sheet on safe medicine use for older patients, as well as suggestions for cutting medicine costs.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com