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One in five taking a drug that worsens other symptoms

Over three-quarters of older Americans are being treated for more than one chronic condition. A new study has highlighted the possible risks of this practice, finding that more than 20% of senior citizens are receiving a medication that may cause another pre-existing condition to get worse, and that more than one in ten (13%) have more than one such “competing condition” among the drugs they take.

Given the widespread practice of prescribing multiple drugs to treat multiple individual conditions, especially among the elderly, it is almost unbelievable that the rate with which competing drugs are prescribed to the same person has never been systematically investigated before. But this study is in fact the first of its kind.

Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine analyzed the medical records of a representative sample of over 5,500 adults over the age of 65, looking for diagnoses of one or more of the 14 most common chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and heart failure. Over 78% of the people included in the study had two or more of these chronic conditions, and 65% had three or more. Overall, 22.6% of the study participants were taking at least one medication that was known to carry the risk of worsening another of their diagnoses—and because this study failed to account for over-the-counter drug use or include less common chronic diseases, it may very well have underestimated the actual rate of competing drug prescriptions.

Even worse, the prescribing patterns suggested that doctors paid little heed to these potentially harmful interactions, as evidenced by the fact that more than 60% of the time, a person with a competing condition was just as likely to be prescribed a drug that could make that condition worse as a person with no other condition. Not only does this study emphasize the urgent need for more research in this field, but hopefully it will encourage anyone taking more than one prescription drug to do their own research and talk to their doctors, or even seek additional opinions, about the safety of their medications.

(Source: PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (2): e89447.)

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