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Medication Side Effects: What You Should Know

As we get older, we are more likely to rely on medications to manage chronic conditions such as arthritis, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85% of older adults have at least one chronic condition while 60% have two or more. While medications can help manage these conditions, changes in our bodies can impact the way medications are absorbed and utilized. As we age, we become more sensitive to medications and are more likely to experience medication side effects and drug interactions.  

Risk of Medication Side Effects

It’s not uncommon for older adults to be taking multiple medicines to manage their chronic conditions. While this is an important and effective way to manage chronic conditions, the more medications you take, the more likely you are to experience an adverse drug reaction or interaction with other medications, food or alcohol. In addition, taking more than one medication can become hard to manage as we get older and the risk of making a mistake becomes greater.

Medications are designed to be absorbed into the body through the intestine and distributed to where they need to go by way of the bloodstream. The liver or kidneys work to chemically change and metabolize the medication while the urinary tract works to remove the rest from the body. However, the normal aging process can disrupt this process which can cause unwanted side effects. According to VeryWell Health Magazine, there are a few ways normal age-related changes in the body can interfere with the way medicine is absorbed, distributed, and metabolized:

Body Fat and Body Fluid

As we age, our muscle mass tends to decrease while fat stored in the body increases. Even if our weight stays the same, our body fat percentage can increase. As medicine gets absorbed into the body, it can also dissolve in fat and become trapped in fat cells, remaining in our bodies for longer periods. In addition, our cells can lose some of their water content throughout the aging process. This can force medications to become too concentrated in the body, increasing their effect.

Changes in the Digestive System

Our digestive systems can slow down as we get older, which can cause medications to reach our intestines more slowly, delaying or decreasing the medication’s absorption. Older adults are more likely to have less stomach acid than those in their younger years, which can also increase the amount of time it takes to break down medications.

Changes in Liver and Kidney Function

Age can cause our livers to get smaller, which causes a decrease in blood flow to this important organ. In addition, the enzymes in the liver that are responsible for breaking down medications can also increase with age. Together, these changes can cause medications to collect in the liver and cause adverse reactions. Just like the liver, the kidney also experiences age-related changes. As the kidneys become smaller, they too become less effective at eliminating unused medication leftover in our bodies.

Normal age-related changes in our bodies can also cause unwanted side effects that are common among older adults. Some common medications can cause weakness, stomach pain, loss of balance, and falls. While these medications aren’t bad, they can cause side effects that impact one’s quality of life. Here are a few of the most common side effects and the medications that cause them:

Common Medication Side Effects in Older Adults

  • Muscle pain and weakness. Muscle aches and overall weakness are common side effects of statins that are used to manage high cholesterol. While muscle pain might not seem serious, there is a life-threatening form of it called rhabdomyolysis that can cause muscle tissues to break down.
  • Bone loss. PPIs, or proton pump inhibitors, are common medications used to treat indigestion in older adults. However, they can reduce our body’s ability to absorb calcium which can lead to bone loss and fractures. They are also linked to reduced absorption of iron, magnesium, and vitamin B12.
  • Nerve damage. Antibiotics like levofloxacin and ciprofloxacin can cause both temporary and permanent nerve damage. These antibiotics should be avoided if possible, but always remember to talk to your doctor before making any changes in your medication.
  • Joint pain. Some new type 2 diabetes medications are often prescribed by healthcare providers because they only need to be taken daily and don’t cause adverse side effects such as low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. However, these medications such as Januvia, Tradjenta, and Onglyza have been linked to severe joint pain.
  • Low sodium. SSRI antidepressants such as sertraline, escitalopram, fluoxetine, and paroxetine have been linked to low blood sodium levels which can cause nausea, confusion, and dizziness.

Medications to Use with Caution

To manage multiple chronic conditions, older adults are often overprescribed. Because of this, they are more likely to experience adverse reactions and side effects. However, some medications are more likely to cause unwanted side effects than others. The American Geriatrics Society Foundation for Health in Aging recommends that people over the age of 65 use caution when it comes to the following types of medications:

  • Muscle relaxants. Be cautious of Flexeril, Robaxin, and Soma. These medications can leave the user feeling confused, disoriented and increase the risk of falls, constipation, dry mouth, and problems with urination.
  • Anti-Anxiety and Anti-Insomnia. Be cautious of Valium, Xanax, Sonata, Ambien, Librium, Limbirtrol, and Librax. These medications increase the risk of falls and confusion. Our bodies take a long time to process these medications which means the user can feel groggy and sleepy for long periods.
  • Heart medications. Be cautious of Lanoxin in doses larger than 0.125mg. This medication is often prescribed to treat heart failure and irregular heartbeat but can be toxic for those who have existing kidney problems.
  • Opioids. Be cautious of Demerol and Talwin. These medications can cause confusion, falls, seizures, and hallucinations.
  • Anti-psychotic drugs. Unless an individual is using antipsychotic drugs to treat schizophrenia, some forms of depression or bipolar disorder, antipsychotics such as Haldol, Risperdal, and Seroquel can increase the risk of stroke, tremors, and the risk of falling.

Understanding Your MedicationsAt Maplewood Senior Living our priority is to keep all residents safe and healthy at all levels of their care. Our highly-qualified medical staff is trained in the nuances of geriatric care and is available to answer any questions or concerns for all Maplewood residents. To learn more about our medical care providers or to schedule a tour of our communities, please contact us here. We’d love to hear from you.

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