Are Seniors Taking Too Many Medications?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Medications

The Dangers of Polypharmacy

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

seniors taking too much medicationModern medicines are truly miraculous. They control the  symptoms associated with many major diseases. At their best they  save lives. But have we become too reliant on medications to cure  everything that ails us?

Every medication has side effects, and many medications interact  with each other in harmful ways. That has become a major concern for our senior citizens because many of them end up on 5 or more medications, something the  medical profession refers to as polypharmacy.

Why Are Seniors Taking So Many Medications?

It starts innocently enough:

  • antioxidant aging Your cholesterol edges up a bit, and your physician recommends  that you go on a statin to reduce your risk of a heart attack. This  is in spite of the fact that it has been almost impossible to prove  that statins actually decrease heart attack risk in people who  have not yet had a heart attack (See “Do Statins Really Work?”  (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/cholesterol‐lowering‐ drugs‐right/) and “Does An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?”  (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/apple‐day‐keep‐statins‐ away/))
  •  Sometimes your cholesterol may not even be elevated. In today’s world statins are often recommended if you are over a certain  age, are overweight, and have some other risk factor such as pre‐ diabetes or high blood pressure.
  •  Your blood pressure starts to inch up (something that happens to most people as they get  older), and your physician recommends one or two blood pressure medications.
  •  Your blood sugar gets a bit high, and your physician recommends a drug to control your  blood sugar to prevent your pre‐diabetes from turning into diabetes.
  •  Perhaps you develop a minor arrhythmia (something else that often happens as we get  older), and your physician recommends one drug to control your heart’s rhythm and  another drug to thin your blood.

Before you know it you are on several medications. As if that weren’t bad enough, each of these  medications has side effects, so you often need to add other medications to control the side effects  of the original medications. For example:

  •  Perhaps you develop heartburn, gas, and/or bloating from the statin, so your physician recommends a drug to control those side effects.
  •  Perhaps you develop headaches, depression, or g.i. symptoms from your blood pressure medication, and your physician gives you one or more drugs to control those symptoms.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It is easy for senior citizens to end up on multiple  medications. The question is whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Are Seniors Taking Too Many Medications?

are supplements dangerousA recent study (Qato et al, JAMA Internal Medicine,  doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.8581, published online March 21, 2016) shows just how big a problem this has  become. The authors conducted a longitudinal, nationally  representative sampling of community‐dwelling adults  aged 62 to 85 years old. They conducted in‐home  interviews that included medication inspections with  2351 participants in 2005‐2006 and again with another  2206 participants 5 years later in 2010‐2011.  The results were startling:

  •  Simultaneous use of at least 5 prescription medications increased from 30.6% in 2005‐ 2006 to 35.8% in 2010‐2011.   That is a 17% increase in just 5 years!
  •  The percentage of adults using medication combinations with the potential for major drug‐ drug interactions increased from 8.4% in 2005‐2006 to 15.1% in 2010‐2011.   That’s almost double in just the last 5 years! To put that into perspective, it means that almost 1 out of every 6 seniors in this  country is at risk of major drug‐drug interactions.
  •  Most of those dangerous interactions were due to physician prescribed medications,  although interactions with over the counter medications also contributed to the total.

The authors of the study concluded “These findings suggest that unsafe use of multiple  medications is a growing public health problem.”

The Most Dangerous Drug­-Drug Interactions

The problem is that these drug‐drug interactions aren’t minor  inconveniences. They can kill you. Here are some of the more  dangerous drug‐drug interactions the authors listed:  Let’s start with those drug‐drug interactions for physician‐ prescribed medication.

  •  Statins used in combination with some blood pressure  medications or with Coumadin can lead to excessive  bleeding, muscle damage and kidney failure.
  •  The combination of those same blood pressure medications with anti‐platelet blood  thinning medications like Plavix dramatically increases the risk of a heart attack and death.

DangerAnd, it’s not just interactions of physician‐prescribed drugs that are of concern. Interactions  between physician‐prescribed drugs and over the counter medications can be equally dangerous.

These interactions are particularly insidious because patients often don’t tell their doctors about  over the counter medications they are using. For example:

  •  The combination of blood thinners with pain relievers such as aspirin or Aleve generally  leads to excessive bleeding.
  •  However, the combination of certain anti‐platelet blood thinning medications such as  Plavix and either pain medications like Aleve or acid reflux medications like Prilosec can  have the opposite effect – causing blot clot formation (such as deep vein thrombosis)  which can lead to heart attacks and cardiovascular death.

Is There a Better Way?

age-related muscle lossIn an editorial that accompanied this study (JAMA Internal  Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternalmedicine.2015.8597)  Dr. Michael A, Steinman said “There are many older adults  who would be healthier if they threw away half of their  medications. Yet, there are people with multiple chronic  diseases who can benefit from multidrug therapy…We  [currently] do not have methods that allow us to reliably  evaluate medication therapy…for the outcomes that really  matter, namely whether a drug is actually helping the  patient, causing adverse effects, or is necessary at all.”

If your doctor doesn’t really know for sure whether the medications you are taking help you, hurt you, or have no effect, you might be wondering whether  there is a better way. The answer is a clear YES!

  •  Multiple studies have shown that lifestyle change is more effective than medications for  keeping blood pressure under control (for example: Guzman‐Castillo et al, BMJ Open,  doi:10.1136/bmjopen‐2014‐006070).
  •  Studies have also shown that lifestyle change is more effective than medications for  controlling diabetes (for example: Knowler et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 346:  393‐403, 2002).
  •  The evidence for heart disease is so strong that both the National Institutes of Health and  the American Heart Association recommend that a little TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle  Change) be tried before resorting to statins and other medications to lower cholesterol and reduce heart attack risk (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/resources/heart/cholesterol‐ tlc).

Fortunately, you don’t need different lifestyle changes for different diseases. One size fits all!  I  have talked about a healthy lifestyle in great detail in past issues of “Health Tips From the  Professor.”  In brief, a healthy lifestyle consists of a  mostly plant‐based diet with healthy fats, healthy carbohydrates, and healthy proteins. Then add  in exercise, weight control, and appropriate supplementation and you have a winning  combination.

Why risk the dangers of multiple medications when there is a better way?

The Bottom Line

  1.  A recent study has clearly demonstrated that the use of multiple medications in senior  citizens aged 62 and older is starting to reach dangerous levels. Between 2005 and 2010:
    •  The percentage of seniors using 5 or more medications has increased from 30.6% to  35.8%. That’s a 17% increase in just 5 years.
    •  The percentage of seniors using medication combinations with the potential for  major drug‐drug interactions has increased from 8.4% to 15.1%. That’s almost  double and represents 1 out of every 6 senior citizens.
  2. These dangerous drug interactions aren’t trivial. They include excessive bleeding, heart  attack and stroke, renal failure and death, just to name a few.
  3.  There is a better way. Studies have shown that lifestyle change is more effective than  medication at controlling many chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure,  and diabetes. Lifestyle change has no side effects and no dangerous interactions. More  importantly, you don’t need different lifestyle changes for different diseases. One size fits  all! I have talked about a healthy lifestyle in great detail in past issues of “Health Tips From  the Professor” (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com). In brief, a healthy lifestyle  consists of:
    •  A mostly plant based diet that includes healthy fats, healthy carbohydrates, and  healthy proteins.
    •  Exercise, weight control, and appropriate supplementation.
  4.  So if you or someone you love are taking multiple medications, talk with your doctor about  the lifestyle changes that you are willing to make. Most doctors would be delighted to  reduce the medications you are taking if you are willing to do your part.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.

 

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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