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Polypharmacy --- When You Take Too Many Medications

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Last updated June 14, 2017, originally published December 7, 2015

By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist




America is a pill-popping nation. Over 131 million Americans, representing two out of every three adults, takes prescription medicine, according to the Health Policy Institute of Georgetown University.  

Those of us who are between the ages of over 50 and 64 take an average of 13 prescription medications.  

And the news gets worse as we age. By the time we reach 80, a whopping 91% of us take prescription medication, averaging 22 separate medications. 


Taking 5 or more medications at the same time is called "polypharmacy" and it is a problem that has reached crisis proportions in America.  What health problems are caused by taking multiple medications at the same time?  What natural remedies exist to wean us off the medication treadmill?


Polypharmacy Is Making Us Poorer

This mountain of pills adds up to a mountain of cash for the pharmaceutical industry.

In 2014, Americans spent a total of $374 billion on 4.3 billion prescriptions, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics based in Danbury, Connecticut.

A full 50% of the cost all prescription medications are paid out of pocket, the Georgetown report found, even though the overwhelming majority of seniors are covered by Medicare.  

The average amount spent on prescription drugs is just about $1000, according to Organization for Economic Development.

But some of us aren’t so lucky to just spend the average. More than 500,000 people in the US spent $50,000 per year or more on prescription drugs, according to a report from the pharmaceutical benefits manager Express Scripts based in St. Louis, Missouri.

To cope with the rising costs of prescription medications, many Americans have opted to skip some of their prescriptions, cut pills in half to make them last longer or order drugs online, according to Georgetown University’s Center on an Aging Society.

Polypharmacy Is Making Us Sicker












The problem of taking multiple medications is not just that the medications are costly. Sometimes, the medications themselves create health problems that range from dry mouth to hip fractures and worse.

Now comes a shocking fact.  Rather than making us healthier, these multiple pills are actually making us sicker. Polypharmacy has become one of the leading causes of hospital admissions in the US today.

Medication-related problems are responsible for 28% of all hospitalizations of people over the age of 65.

Taking multiple medications put you at increased for falls, fainting, confusion and hip fractures. In fact, 32,000 Americans suffered hip fractures directly related to problems caused by medications, according to the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists.

Even in countries with healthier populations, in which seniors take fewer medications, medication-related problems are on the rise. In Norway, a study from Lovisenberg Diakonale Hospital in Oslo found that 81% of patients admitted during a six-month period had medications-related problems.

When they were admitted, the patients took an average of 4.6 medications, and each patient had an average of 2.1 medical problems caused by these medications.  The leading cause of the problems related to taking the wrong dosage (35% of people), taking drugs which were not right for their condition (21.4% of people), and taking unnecessary drugs (16.7% of people). Other problems included not having necessary laboratory tests (21.6%)  and medical chart errors (16.3%) which led to being given the wrong drugs.

Natural Remedies That Fight Polypharmacy

If you are not yet one of the 36.7% of Americans over 60 or who take 5 or more prescription medications per month, congratulations. But don’t spend too much time patting yourself on the back.  About 76% of those over 60 are taking at least 2 prescription medications per month, the CDC reports.  Once you are on any prescription medications, you have entered the slippery slope toward polypharmacy.

Here are the 5 most important steps you can take to avoid becoming a multiple-pill poppers as you age:

Monitor and Manage Your Blood Pressure


People who take multiple medications do so because they have multiple medical conditions. The single most common medical condition requiring prescription medication is high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension is defined as having a blood pressure reading over 140/90 mg/dL. Pre-hypertension starts when your blood pressure exceeds 120/70, according to the American Heart Association.  

Management of high blood pressure starts with awareness of where you are. Many people who are on high blood pressure medication only have their blood pressure monitored when they are in their doctor’s office. Invest in a home blood pressure monitor and take your blood pressure every day.

If you are already hypertensive, examine your diet. You know by now that you have to limit your salt intake if you have high blood pressure. Avoiding all table salt is easy.

But did you know that many medications themselves contain salt? Avoiding them is not so easy. Read the labels of your medications. If any of them contain salt (sodium) or a sodium compound, ask for doctor for an alternative prescription. (Read more about 7 hidden sources of salt in your diet.)

You should also consider changing your diet. Potassium is needed to help maintain normal blood pressure yet, according to the Institute of Medicine, 98% of Americans are potassium deficient. The American Heart Association recommends that we consume 4700 milligrams of potassium per day. Increasing the amount of potassium-rich foods should be one of the first steps you take to control blood pressure.

Try to include potassium-rich foods in your diet such as cooked spinach and other dark leafy greens, beans, mushrooms, bananas, and yogurt to your daily meals.

Get Close to Your Ideal Weight

Pure and simple, being overweight increases your risk for many of  the major chronic diseases that require prescriptions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Think about it. Just lowering your body weight enough may help you avoid the need ( or lose the need) for these drugs:

Diabetes:(metformin,trade names Glucophage,Glumetza, Fortamet and Riomet)

High blood pressure: (diuretics such as Bumetanide (Bumex),Chlorthalidone (Hygroton),Chlorothiazide (Diuril),Ethacrynate (Edecrin),Furosemide (Lasix),

Hydrochlorothiazide HCTZ (Esidrix, Hydrodiuril),Indapamide (Lozol),

Metolazone (Mykroz, Zaroxolyn) and Torsemide (Demadex)

Heart disease: (statins such as Atorvastatin, Rosuvastatin, Simvastatin, Pravastatin, Lovastatin, Fluvastatin, Pitavastatin  ).

Walk and Walk Some More  

In 2015, scientists from the University of Utah School of Medicine found that people who walk just 2 minutes an hour can reduce their risk of dying by 33%. Those with kidney disease who walk can reduce their risk for dying by 40%.

Adding more walking to your day lowers your risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, arterial disease, stroke and even cancer.  Although the amount of walking you must do to see a significant reduction in your risk varies by disease, most studies set a minimum of 30 minutes per day to see appreciable results.

Consider Herbal and Natural Approaches  

The Center on Aging Society reports that 3 million Americans use herbal medicines. Those who use herbal medicine tend to be better educated and in better health than the general population.




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