Medication management in older adults

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Managing medications is a major part of providing care to older adults. Polypharmacy is common in the elderly and is fraught with risks. A careful and systematic approach is needed for managing drug therapy in these patients, recognizing the patient’s specific goals.


  • Statins, anticholinergics, benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and proton pump inhibitors are widely prescribed.
  • In older patients, a periodic comprehensive medication review is needed to reevaluate the risks and the benefits of current medications in light of goals of care, life expectancy, and the patient’s preferences.
  • The Beers criteria and the Screening Tool of Older Persons’ Potentially Inappropriate Prescriptions provide valuable guidance for safe prescribing in older adults.



Medications started for appropriate indications in middle age may need to be monitored more closely as the patient ages. Some drugs may become unnecessary or even dangerous as the patient ages, functional status and renal function decline, and goals of care change.

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Older adults tend to have multiple illnesses and therefore take more drugs, and polypharmacy increases the risk of poor outcomes. The number of medications a person uses is a risk factor for adverse drug reactions, nonadherence, financial burden, drug-drug interactions, and worse outcomes. 1

The prevalence of polypharmacy increased from an estimated 8.2% to 15% from 1999 to 2011 based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. 2 Guideline-based therapy for specific diseases may lead to the addition of more medications to reach disease targets. 3 Most older adults in the United States compound the risk of prescribed medications by also taking over-the-counter medications and dietary supplements. 4

In addition, medications are often used in older adults based on studies of younger persons without significant comorbidities. Applying clinical guidelines based on these studies to older adults with comorbidity and functional impairment is challenging. 5 Age-related pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic changes increase the risk of adverse drug reactions. 6

In this article, we review commonly used medications that are potentially inappropriate based on clinical practice. We also review tools to evaluate appropriate drug therapy in older adults.



Statins are effective when used as secondary prevention in older adults, 7 but their efficacy when used as primary prevention of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in people age 75 and older is questionable. 8 Nevertheless, they are widely used for this purpose. For example, before the 2013 joint guidelines of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association (ACC/AHA) were released, 22% of patients age 80 and older in the Geisinger health system were taking a statin for primary prevention. 9

The 2013 ACC/AHA guidelines included a limited recommendation for statins for primary prevention of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease in adults age 75 and older. 10 The guideline noted, however, that few data were available to support this recommendation. 10

In a systematic review of 18 randomized clinical trials of statins for primary prevention of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, the mean age was 57, yet conclusions were extrapolated to an older patient population. 11 The estimated 10-year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease based on pooled cohort risk equations of adults age 75 and older always exceeds the 7.5% treatment threshold recommended by the guidelines. 8

Myopathy is a common adverse effect of statins. In addition, statins interact with other drugs that inhibit the cytochrome P450 3A4 isoenzyme, such as amlodipine, amiodarone, and diltiazem. 8,12 If statin therapy caused no functional limitation due to muscle pain or weakness, statins for primary prevention would be cost-effective, but even a small increase in adverse effects in an elderly patient can offset the cardiovascular benefit. 13 A recent post hoc secondary analysis found no benefit of pravastatin for primary prevention in adults age 75 and older. 14


Next Article:

Finding balance: Optimizing medication prescribing in older patients

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