Prescription Drugs: How They Can Help, Hurt, or…Kill!

Part 1

By Mike DuBose

America’s prosperity and access to great healthcare options provide us with many benefits. Our excellent living conditions have pushed the average American’s life expectancy to nearly 80 years (compared to 54 years in 1914). While the pandemic shortened the length of our lifespans, many of the other diseases and conditions that were disabling or deadly in the past are now being successfully controlled, treated, or eliminated by modern medicine.

Prescription drugs have significantly contributed to this progress. While they can save lives and are invaluable tools for medical professionals in treating illness and disease, research indicates that medications are also known as “killers of many individuals 65 and over!” The National Institute on Aging reports “Medicines are intended to help us live longer and healthier, but taking medicines the wrong way or mixing certain drugs and supplements can be dangerous. Older adults often have several medical conditions which may require multiple medicines, putting them in danger of serious side effects.” also acknowledged that “The more prescriptive drugs you take, the chances increase of having a ‘serious’ drug-to-drug interaction which can put your heart at risk.” Nearly 90% of seniors regularly take at least 1 prescription, 80% two drugs, and 40% regularly consume 5+ different medications. Some studies indicate that many people aged 65 and older were taking 15+ prescriptions daily and are over-medicated! When over-the-counter and dietary supplements are included, these numbers spike. I frequently see seniors carrying large bags of medication bottles in doctor’s offices.

It takes experimental work to find the balance between too few and too many of the “right” prescriptions, understand their proper usage, and maximize savings. But the benefits—feeling better, enjoying longer lives, and preventing or treating illness and disease are worthwhile. Based on my research, personal experience, and interviews with pharmacists and medical doctors, the following are tips to help maintain good health and effectively manage prescription intake:

Listen to your body: Some illnesses or conditions don’t cause any outward signs, or the symptoms may mimic those of another health condition. However, our bodies usually try to communicate with us if something is wrong, and it’s essential that we listen. If any aspect of your health, no matter how small, like a tiny mole, changes abruptly or causes you discomfort, note the details when patterns surface.

Engage with excellent doctors before you need them: To maintain optimum health, it’s essential that you have a team of competent doctors and specialists helping you. While sometimes necessary, rather than simply going to a “doc-in-the-box” or the ER when you’re sick, build relationships with competent professionals. Going to the same physicians over time means that they will get to know you, have access to your medical records, and will likely notice irregularities in your health.

Ensure that conversations with your doctor are friendly, honest two-way exchanges, but to the point: According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s important to share all of your symptoms with health professionals. Keep written records of all issues you have experienced, when they occurred, and how long they persisted. Also note any major problems or stressors that coincided with the symptoms (such as depression, major life events, stress, anxiety, or hormonal changes), and let the doctor know of any medications you are taking. Many medical professionals are forced to spend less time with each patient (some no more than 10 minutes!) which can limit their ability to accurately diagnose your problem versus treating symptoms. So, when you meet with your medical professionals, have your notes and research ready to go! While you want to be friendly, it’s not a time to chit-chat.

Schedule annual physicals: Many major diseases have the potential to be detected and even cured—if you’re aware of them in their early stages. See your primary doctors at least once per year and allow them to perform any tests they deem necessary.

Develop a written, updated medication chart: List dosage/times of prescriptions. Include supplements and vitamins you take since they can affect other medications. Preferably, it should be in an electronic form such as a Word file that you can adjust as medications change. You can also keep a list which can be easily retrieved on your smartphone if you forget the hard copy.

Double check that you’re given correct medicines: Although electronic prescriptions have significantly decreased the likelihood of pharmacists misreading doctors’ handwriting, the potential for error is still there. When you arrive home after picking up your meds, ensure that it’s your correct prescription. The FDA requires medications to display different sizes, shapes, colors, and symbols to help indicate differences, but some look similar, so examine them carefully. While pharmacists double-check prescriptions, some use technicians to initially fill patient orders.

Decide right dosages: Most physicians will prescribe average amounts that are effective for most people. However, everyone is different and factors that might impact the dosage include test outcomes, weight, gender, and age. If in doubt about your ideal dosage, ask if you can start at the lowest milligrams and increase gradually with the supervision of a medical professional. And watch carefully for any unusual symptoms after beginning the meds. Sometimes, it takes time for your body to adjust to new drugs.

The Bottom Line: It’s important that you work with your medical professionals “as partners” and thoroughly research all your medications. My personal goal is to take all required medications but minimize the number of prescriptions and supplements I consume. Our next article will explore additional medication strategies.

The DuBose family’s purpose is to “Create Opportunities to Improve Lives.” Mike is a staff member with USC’s graduate school. In 1987, he founded his family of companies and eventually wrote the book “The Art of Building Great Businesses.” Visit his nonprofit website for free access to his books and 100+ published articles, including business, travel, and personal topics, in addition to health research with Surb Guram, MD. Write to him at [email protected].