We’ve all experienced that encounter with one of the more life-experienced members of the family, with the pill organizers taped together in rows to help organize the many medications they take daily. Over time, new medications were added, so new pill boxes were added until the rows of pill boxes looked to you like a giant Lego kit built to house a burdensome routine of pills. Funny though, the person taking the medications doesn’t view it that way at all; to them, the pills were all prescribed by a doctor, and it’s just part of aging.

Well, if recent data are any clue to the future, we can expect this type of encounter to be on the rise, and in a significant way. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey is an annual population-based survey of people living independently in the United States. It gathers data on a wide range of factors related to lifestyle, nutrition, medical conditions, and medication use. The survey is conducted in such a way as to represent the U.S. population as a whole.

According to a recently published analysis of the most recent survey, prescription medication use is on the rise, particularly among older adults. Overall, 59% of all adults reported taking at least 1 prescription medicine in 2011-2012, compared to 51% of in 1999-2000. When the investigators parsed out the percentages for the 65-and-older population, the results jumped to 90% who reported taking at least 1 prescription medication in 2011-2012 – with a compelling 39% taking 5 or more medications. Not surprisingly, the top three medications taken in the older age group were for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.

So what do we learn from these data? Older adults take a lot of medication. Why? Many reasons, but the most common are physicians treating to medical practice guidelines, patient demand for symptom relief, and the influence of the media. The problem is, more attention is given to adding medications than taking away ones that are no longer needed or appropriate.

Is there anything we can do about this phenomenon? For a start, we can increase the use of pharmacists to evaluate the appropriateness of each medication an elderly patient is taking, and avoid those medications that might be dangerous if used in older adults, such as the Beer’s Criteria medications we discussed in an earlier blog.

So, the next time you encounter a friend, family member, or loved one with a multilayer Lego-like pill box system, reach out to a local pharmacist for a Comprehensive Medication Review. It’s a free benefit for anyone with multiple medical conditions taking multiple medications and receiving Medicare Part D.