Be medicinewise as you’re getting older

As we age the way the body handles and reacts to medicines can gradually change.


These changes need to be taken into account and can affect your health professional’s recommendations regarding the types and doses of medicine that are suitable for you.


It is also common for older people to be taking more than one medicine on a regular basis. Taking multiple medicines can increase a person’s risk of side effects and medicine interactions.


Around 1 in 3 unplanned hospital admissions involving older Australians are due to problems with medicines. Half of these medicine problems could be prevented.


Becoming older can influence how the body is affected by medicines

Age-related changes in the way the body works, as well as changes in the amount of water, fat and muscle in your body, can have important effects on the medicines you take and what they do to you.


These changes can affect:

  • how medicines are removed from your body by your kidneys

  • how medicines are broken down by your liver

  • how and where a medicine is stored in your body.


This means the effect a medicine has on you now could be different to the effect a medicine had when you were younger.


Be mindful of medicine side effects

Age-related changes can increase your risk of experiencing side effects and medicine interactions. Be aware that side effects are often worse when you first take a medicine or if your dose is increased.


If you become more sensitive to medicines as you age, you may:

  • experience stronger effects

  • become more prone to unintended side effects

  • develop harmful medicine interactions.


What does this mean?

Side effects can lead to serious consequences such as falls, broken bones, accidents and hospitalisation.


For example, a dose that would have made you slightly drowsy at a younger age could now make you very drowsy, confused, or unsteady on your feet, and consequently more prone to falls. You may be much less alert or co-ordinated, and unable to carry out complex tasks safely, such as driving.


Taking multiple medicines?

About 2 in every 5 Australians aged 50 or over take at least 5 medicines a day. This increases to 2 in every 3 among people 75 years or older.


Generally, if you take more than 5 medicines a day medicines – including prescription, non-prescription (over-the-counter) or complementary medicines – your risk of experiencing side effects and medicine interactions is greatly increased.


Taking multiple medicines can also contribute to medicine mistakes. It’s important to talk to your health professional about the best ways to manage multiple medicines.


How can I be more medicinewise?

Making decisions about medicines when you are older is not always straightforward. Depending on your own health issues and the medicines you take, your doctor or other health professional may need to take greater care to work out which medicine and dose is most appropriate for you.


Always take medicines exactly as prescribed by your doctor and do not adjust dosage without first discussing with your doctor.


Your health professional may recommend you:

  • take a lower dose of some or all of your medicines, or reduce how often you take them

  • take a medicine for a limited period of time

  • not take some medicines or medicine combinations

  • have tests that check your kidney or liver function, or how much medicine is in your body

  • not stand up too quickly, drink alcohol, drive or operate machinery while taking a medicine

  • look out for specific side effects or symptoms so you can act on them.


You can also help prevent medicine problems by:

  • asking your doctor or pharmacist to review your medicines and advise any necessary changes, especially if you are taking multiple medicines

  • keeping a Medicines List

  • talking to your health professional about any changes in how you feel, especially when taking new medicines or doses.


16 October 2015.