Alzheimer’s and Dementia – Age-Related Diseases? Or Too Many Pharmaceuticals?
Over one third of all pharmaceutical drugs prescribed by doctors every year, are taken by people over the age of 65. If you are one of them, then you’ll know much better than I do, that you and your peers are probably taking about six different drugs at any given time.
Polypharmacy — when more than one drug is prescribed at a time — is an even bigger problem in hospitals and care homes, where the average patient is given at least seven different drugs a day. A recent UK government review has revealed that drugs like dementia medication are prescribed inappropriately in 80 per cent of cases and are often given to patients as a chemical cosh to keep them quiet!
As if that is not alarming enough, the question has now risen whether many of these over-prescribed drugs could be the real culprit behind diseases associated with ageing.
A cure worse than the disease
In 1965, when geriatric medicine was still in its infancy, Bernard Isaac, a professor of geriatric medicine at Birmingham University, said that almost every health concern of the elderly can be traced back to four giant health threats that would determine their longevity: immobility, incontinence, instability and cognitive decline.
Little did Prof Isaac know that in many older patients these four health threats are often caused by the very medicine that is supposed to treat them:
Immobility and instability
On average 30 per cent of all over 65s fall each year and 25 per cent of these patients die within 6 months after their fall. Of course, there are many reasons why an elderly person falls, however it’s estimated that prescription drugs are responsible for around 18 per cent of all cases.
Tranquilizers and sedatives, like benzodiazepine, can increase the risk of falling three-fold. Canadian researchers have found that flurazepam and triazolam are the most dangerous of these types of drugs, and according to their findings, patients taking these drugs were most likely to fall within the first two weeks of starting their medication.
A small US study also found that benzodiazepine acted directly on the central nervous system and affected neuromuscular processing, and balance control.
Incontinence: Often viewed as an unfortunate consequence of ageing, incontinence can arise for many different reasons and in people of all ages. However, one in 10 aged 65 and over, and three in 10 aged 80 and over, have some loss of bladder control.
The real kicker is that many prescription drugs cause temporary incontinence. Anticholinergic agents, which are found in antihistamines, antidepressants, opiates and Parkinson’s drugs, as well as heart drugs like calcium- channel blockers and diuretics or ‘water pills’, are some of the main culprits here.
Cognitive decline: Although ageing is a genuine factor in cognitive decline, pharmaceuticals also play a role in worsening the problem. US researchers at the University of Florida have found that any drug with nerve-blocking qualities (anticholinergic), such as those used to treat an over-active bladder, can speed up cognitive decline.
Adding to this, another group of researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina, in the US, reported that many commonly prescribed drugs have side effects, like confusion and memory loss, which mimic the signs of cognitive impairment.
The fact is that all drugs have side effects even though they are tested for their safety and effectiveness. However, drugs are tested in isolation and almost never in conjunction with other drugs. So, there’s no telling that by taking two or more drugs at the same time, you could be dosing yourself with a potentially lethal cocktail. You can imagine how much higher this risk is when you take as many as six or seven drugs on a daily basis!
Based on all the evidence (and there is plenty) polypharmacy could be behind many of the common health problems seen among the elderly. This makes you wonder: If it weren’t for all these drugs, perhaps growing old would not be such a daunting prospect.