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Brownlee, senior vice president of the Lown Institute, a Boston-based group that seeks to improve health-care quality by reducing unnecessary treatment, said that when her brother questioned the necessity of so many new drugs for a woman in her late 80s, the specialist replied frostily, “I don’t see anything wrong with prescribing lots of medication to older people.” “This problem has gotten worse because the average American is on a lot more medications than 15 years ago,” said cardiologist Rita Redberg, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.Studies bolster Redberg’s contention: A 2015 report found that the share of Americans of all ages who regularly took at least five prescription drugs nearly doubled between 20, from 8 percent to 15 percent.
Her experience, she said, was a catalyst for the Canadian Deprescribing Network, a consortium of researchers, physicians, pharmacists, and health advocates she cofounded.“It’s very typical to see a patient who has a few episodes of reflux and is then put on a [proton pump inhibitor, or PPI] and a few years later are still taking it,” said Mishori.Many experts say heartburn drugs are overprescribed, and studies have linked their long-term use to fractures, dementia, and premature death.Doctors say it is not uncommon to encounter patients taking more than 20 drugs to treat acid reflux, heart disease, depression, insomnia, or other disorders.Unlike the overuse of opioid painkillers, the polypharmacy problem has attracted little attention, even though its hazards are well-documented. At least 15 percent of seniors seeking care annually from doctors or hospitals have suffered a medication problem; in half of these cases, the problem is believed to be potentially preventable.
For decades, experts have warned that older Americans are taking too many unnecessary drugs, often prescribed by multiple doctors, for dubious or unknown reasons.