Medications save lives: people suffering from chronic conditions, such as diabetes, high blood presssure, high cholesterol, cancer, mental illness and chronic pain, take prescription medications to help control their symptoms and lead meaningful lives. However, taking too many prescriptions medications can be risky.

Taking more than 5 medications is called polypharmacy.  The risk of harmful effects, drug interactions and hospitalizations increase when you take more medications.


Side effects and harmful effects

Harmful effects of medication can include:

  • Drug interactions
  • Falls and fractures (click here for additional information on falls)
  • Memory problems
  • Hospitalizations and higher risk of death

Who is most at risk OF harmful effects of medication?

1. People with multiple chronic conditions

People with multiple chronic conditions often take lots of medications to manage each disease. However, we often don't know the combined effects of medications on the body, because drug trials test one drug at a time on young healthy men.

Taking lots of medications for multiple chronic conditions, increases the risk of harmful effects because of:

  • Drug-drug interactions: medications may have unpredictable effects when they interact with each other. 
  • Drug-disease interactions: medications may have unpredictable effects on another disease a person has.

Sometimes, additional medications are prescribed to counteract the harmful effects of existing medications, which can exacerbate the problem.

2. Women

Women are more likely to be prescribed risky medication and are more susceptible to harmful effects of medication.

Women and medications

This is because:

  • Women have a longer life expectancy
  • Women are diagnosed with more chronic conditions
  • Women take more medication
  • Female biology and physiology increase the risk of harmful effects of medication

3. People over the age of 65

Unfortunately, each year in Canada 1 in 200 seniors are hospitalized due to harmful effects of their medication. Seniors are hospitalized five times more often than people under the age of 65 because of harmful medication effects (CIHI 2013).

This is because, as we get older:

  • The brain becomes more sensitive to drug effects
  • Medications stay longer in our body because we have less muscle and more body fat
  • Our liver and kidneys do not process medications as efficiently as when we were younger
  • Our body contain less water and medications can become more concentrated
Senior woman and medications

People over the age of 65 often manage multiple chronic conditions and take multiple medications to control their symptoms.

  • 2 out of 3 Canadians (66%) over the age of 65 take at least 5 different prescription medications.
  • 1 out of 4 Canadians (27%) over the age of 65 take at least 10 different prescription medications (CIHI 2014).

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