Seniors combining brain-altering drugs despite risks: Study

Seniors-combining-brain-affecting-drugs-despite-risks-StudyIn the span of ten years, the number of American seniors who are taking at least three medications that affect the brain has increased two-fold, despite the risks associated with polypharmacy.

This information comes from a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine and was conducted by a research team from the University of Michigan and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, and the results found polypharmacy highest in seniors living in rural areas. These locales saw doctor visits by seniors who were taking at least three medications more than triple over the course of ten years.


The combination of antidepressants, opioids, tranquilizers, and antipsychotics can result in potentially detrimental side effects, especially among older adults. The risk of falls increases when these medications are mixed, and they may also cause issues with thinking, memory, and driving. Falls are responsible for many injuries among the older population, and problems with memory and cognition could lead to wandering or confusion that potentially puts the user in danger. Doctors have also warned against mixing benzodiazepine tranquilizers and opioids, as this combination increases your risk of death and has received the strongest possible warning from the United States Food and Drug Administration.

To conduct their study, researchers reviewed data that was collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between the years 2004 and 2013 from a representative sample of doctors’ offices. In 2004, just 0.6 percent of doctor visits by Americans over the age of 65 included patients who were on three or more central nervous system affecting medications.

By 2013, this number jumped to 1.4 percent—when applied to the entire American senior population, this translates to 3.68 million visits to the doctor per year involving seniors on three or more of these drugs. While researchers acknowledge the rise may be due to the increased willingness of seniors to ask for and accept help and medication for mental health issues, they assert that the combination of drugs is still concerning.

They also found that approximately half of the seniors who were combining these medications did not have a formal diagnosis of any of the three main issues they are most often prescribed for: mental health conditions, insomnia, and pain.
The team hopes to raise awareness of the risks of combining medications in hopes that medical practitioners and patients will follow the newly updated guidelines set by the American Geriatrics Society in 2015.

Dr. Donovan Maust, the lead author of the study, commented: “We hope that the newer prescribing guidelines for older adults encourage providers and patients to reconsider the potential risks and benefits from these combinations.” This update to the guidelines is the first to state concern over the use of multiple central nervous system since it was first published in 1997.

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