Study: Risk of drug interactions rising

WASHINGTON — Americans are taking more prescription drugs than ever, a new study finds — especially older adults. They are also taking more supplements and over-the-counter treatments, potentially raising their risk of dangerous drug interactions.

The study shows seniors are especially at risk, and the situation is getting steadily worse.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore crunched tons of data from national surveys of roughly 2,000 older adults conducted in 2005-2006, and again in 2010-2011.

The authors found that over that five-year period, the percentage of adults over the age of 62 at risk of a major drug interaction doubled from 8.4 percent to 15.1 percent.

Use of prescription drugs was up, with roughly a third of those surveyed reporting they took at least five medications a day. But just as concerning to the research team was the fact two-thirds of those on multiple medications were also taking over-the-counter meds and dietary supplements, such as multivitamins, and minerals, such as calcium.

Study co-author Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness at Hopkins, says one in six seniors is now potentially at risk for a major drug interaction problem. He says patients and doctors all too often forget that over-the-counter treatments and supplements can present problems when combined with a prescribed drug.

“It is really, really important for patients and doctors and other health care professionals to realize not only how commonly patients are taking over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements, but also the potential for drug-drug interactions,” Alexander says.

He adds that only a small number of medications account for the majority of drug interactions, but they are among the most commonly prescribed meds in this country. They include blood thinners, anticoagulants and cardiovascular treatments for high blood pressure and cholesterol.

One example is statins, which play an important role in reducing the risk of heart attacks, but when taken in combination with certain over-the-counter-drugs and supplements, can be troublesome.

While this particular study focused on the senior set, Alexander says we all need to be more aware of possible drug interactions, and anyone on prescription medications should consult with their health care provider before taking anything else.

He says the bottom line is “just because a treatment is available over the counter doesn’t mean that it is entirely safe — especially when it is combined with many prescription medicines.”

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