1 in 6 Seniors Take Risky Drug Combinations

By Pat Anson, Editor

One in six older adults now regularly use potentially deadly combinations of prescription drugs, over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements, a two-fold increase over a five-year period, according to new research published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago surveyed over 2,200 Americans between the ages of 62 and 85 and found that over half (54%) were taking some type of pain reliever in 2011.

Over 40 percent used aspirin; nearly 14% took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs); and about 11% used an opioid analgesic.

Only 44% were using a pain reliever in 2006.

Researchers identified 15 potentially life-threatening drug combinations of the most commonly used medications and supplements. Statins, anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin, and supplements (specifically omega-3 fish oil) accounted for the vast majority of interacting drug medications, some of which worsen cardiovascular problems. Opioids were not listed among the 15 risky combinations.

Nearly 15% of older adults regularly used at least one of the dangerous drug combinations in 2011, compared to 8% five years earlier.

"The risk seems to be growing, and public awareness is lacking," said Dima Mazen Qato, an assistant professor of pharmacy systems at the University of Illinois.

"Many older patients seeking to improve their cardiovascular health are also regularly using interacting drug combinations that may worsen cardiovascular risk. For example, the use of clopidogrel in combination with the proton-pump inhibitor omeprazole, aspirin, or naproxen -- all over-the-counter medications -- is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, bleeding complications, or death.”

As Pain News Network reported, European researchers also warned last week that aspirin and some types of NSAID’s could be harmful to patients with heart or kidney problems. The researchers said NSAIDs, in particular, raise cardiovascular risk and there is no "solid evidence" the drugs are safe.

"When doctors issue prescriptions for NSAIDs, they must in each individual case carry out a thorough assessment of the risk of heart complications and bleeding. NSAIDs should only be sold over the counter when it comes with an adequate warning about the associated cardiovascular risks,” said Christian Torp-Pedersen, a professor in cardiology at Aalborg University in Denmark.

In opioid prescribing guidelines released last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends "nonopioid pharmacologic therapy" such as acetaminophen and NSAIDs as the "preferred" treatments for chronic pain. Only briefly do the CDC guidelines even mention that NSAIDs have been associated with cardiovascular risks or that acetaminophen may cause liver failure. Instead, the 52-page guideline focuses on the risks of opioid addiction and abuse.

Over half of the risky drug combinations in the University of Illinois study involved over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements.