What not to prescribe to older adults and what to use instead


This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Today we are going to talk about the American Geriatrics Society 2023 updated Beers Criteria guidance for medication use in older adults. These criteria have been updated and revised approximately every 5 years since 1991 and serve to alert us to medications for which the risk-benefit ratio is not as good in older adults as in the rest of the population.

These are important criteria because medications are metabolized differently in older adults and have different effects compared with younger patients. For the sake of these criteria, older adults are 65 years of age or older. That said, we know that everyone from 65 to 100 is not the same. As people age, they develop more comorbidities, they become more frail, and they are more sensitive to the effects and side effects of drugs.

The guidance covers potentially inappropriate medications for older adults. The word “potentially” is important because this is guidance. As clinicians, we make decisions involving individuals. This guidance should be used with judgment, integrating the clinical context of the individual patient.

There is a lot in this guidance. I am going to try to cover what I feel are the most important points.

Aspirin. Since the risk for major bleeding increases with age, for primary prevention of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, the harm can be greater than the benefit in older adults, so aspirin should not be used for primary prevention. Aspirin remains indicated for secondary prevention in individuals with established cardiovascular disease.

Warfarin. For treatment of atrial fibrillation or venous thromboembolism (deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism), warfarin should be avoided if possible. Warfarin has a higher risk for major bleeding, particularly intracranial bleeding, than direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs); therefore the latter are preferred. Rivaroxaban should be avoided, as it has a higher risk for major bleeding in older adults than the other DOACs. Apixaban is preferred over dabigatran. If a patient is well controlled on warfarin, you can consider continuing that treatment.

Antipsychotics. These include first- and second-generation antipsychotics such as aripiprazole, haloperidol, olanzapine, quetiapine, risperidone, and others. The guidance says to avoid these agents except for FDA-approved indications such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and adjuvant treatment of depression. Use of these antipsychotics can increase risk for stroke, heart attack, and mortality. Essentially, the guidance says do not use these medications lightly for the treatment of agitated dementia. For those of us with older patients, this can get tricky because agitated dementia is a difficult issue for which there are no good effective medications. The Beers guidance recognizes this in saying that these medications should be avoided unless behavioral interventions have failed. So, there are times where you may need to use these medicines, but use them judiciously.

For patients with dementia, anticholinergics, antipsychotics, and benzodiazepines should be avoided if possible.

Benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines should also be avoided because older adults have increased sensitivity to their effects due to slower metabolism and clearance of these medications, which can lead to a much longer half-life and higher serum level. In older adults, benzodiazepines increase the risk for cognitive impairment, delirium, falls, fractures, and even motor accidents. The same concerns affect the group of non-benzodiazepine sleeping medicines known as “Z-drugs.”

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Used frequently in our practices, NSAIDs are nevertheless on the list. As we think through the risk-benefit ratio of using NSAIDs in older adults, we often underappreciate the risks of these agents. Upper gastrointestinal ulcers with bleeding occur in approximately 1% of patients treated for 3-6 months with an NSAID and in 2%-4% of patients treated for a year. NSAIDs also increase the risk for renal impairment and cardiovascular disease.

Other medications to avoid (if possible). These include:

Sulfonylureas, due to a high risk for hypoglycemia. A short-acting sulfonylurea, such as glipizide, should be used if one is needed.

Proton pump inhibitors should not be used long-term if it can be avoided.

Digoxin should not be first-line treatment for atrial fibrillation or heart failure. Decreased renal clearance in older adults can lead to toxic levels of digoxin, particularly during acute illnesses. Avoid doses > 0.125 mg/day.

Nitrofurantoin should be avoided when the patient’s creatinine clearance is < 30 or for long-term suppressive therapy.

Avoid combining medications that have high anticholinergic side effects, such as scopolamine, diphenhydramine, oxybutynin, cyclobenzaprine, and others.

It is always important to understand the benefits and the risks of the drugs we prescribe. It is also important to remember that older adults are a particularly vulnerable population. The Beers criteria provide important guidance, which we can then use to make decisions about medicines for individual patients.

Dr. Skolnik is a professor in the department of family medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director in the department of family medicine at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. He disclosed ties with AstraZeneca, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly, GSK, Merck, Sanofi, Sanofi Pasteur, and Teva.

A version of this article appeared on

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