The Dai-lai Lama, of all people, thinks so, as he recounts in a story he tells in different versions. He says he often stays with wealthy American devotees who leave him alone for long stretches to ramble their mansions. But the self-described mischievous monk can’t help himself and sneaks into his hosts’ bathrooms, where curiosity compels him to peer into their medicine cabinets. There, he finds pill stashes—uppers, downers, and more. This saddens him, because he wonders why, amid such affluence and accomplishment, Americans suffer so much that they keep veritable pharmacies in their homes.
What’s your medicine chest or kitchen counter look like? Is it overflowing with prescription vials, bottles of vitamins and supplements, and half-used supplies of over-the-counter meds?
You may be past due for a critical spring cleaning ritual. You may wish to consult with your doctor, pharmacist, and family to “de-medicate”—to reconsider what pills you routinely take. You may end up tossing many of them. That could save you money, lots of it. And it may better safeguard your health. Just saying no to ever-proliferating medications also may have wider consequences.
Break out of the prescription drug frenzy
Mike Scott, a gym-going lawyer, professor, dad, and grandad, worried when his aches and back pain worsened, hobbling him as he struggled to get up and down and even walk. He had lots going on with work and caring for his extended family. He’s no kid. But he kept talking to his doctor and eventually zeroed in, with help from knowledgeable family members, on a drug he was prescribed: a generic statin. His doctor finally conceded that Scott, who doesn’t have high cholesterol, heart problems, or a family heart history, maybe didn’t need the statin after all.
As happens with many patients who suffer similar side effects from widely prescribed statins, the muscle soreness and pain lifted when Scott, 70, stopped taking the pills. Colleagues started kidding him about the new pep he had in his step. He says he’s just glad he figured out how to talk with a conscientious doctor about a medication that wasn’t working for him.
Not all Americans are so lucky. As Austin Frackt, a physician and New York Times columnist, has pointed out, “increasing number of Americans—typically older ones with multiple chronic conditions—are taking drugs and supplements they don’t need, or so many of them that those substances are interacting with one another in harmful ways.” He has reported that: “Studies show that some patients can improve their health with fewer drugs. Though many prescription drugs are highly valuable, taking them can also be dangerous, particularly taking a lot of them at once. The vast majority of higher-quality studies summarized in a systematic review on polypharmacy—the taking of multiple medications — found an association with a bad health event, like a fall, hospitalization or death.”
If all these drugs truly benefited us, maybe our huge consumption of them would make more sense. But many Americans suffer harms from prescription drug taking, especially due to bad interactions among meds. As Frackt has pointed out in the New York Times, roughly a third of adverse events in hospitals track back to drug-related harms, leading to longer stays and higher costs. One in 20 patients discharged from hospitals suffers drug-related complications after returning home. Older patients are at more risk because they have more chronic conditions and take many medications for these, with 1 in five Medicare recipients gulping down 10 or more drugs or supplements. Roughly 1 in 5 older patients receive an inappropriate medication, which they could do without or which could be switched to a safer drug, Frackt reports. Some studies show that 60 percent of older Americans are taking an unneeded drug. When patients take multiple meds, interaction risks rise steeply. With opioid painkillers so widely prescribed and abused, public health experts have warned about mixing these meds with anti-anxiety drugs, benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax. The results can be deadly. Mixing other drugs, including those that cause sleepiness or dizziness, can lead to dangerous, expensive falls, especially for seniors.
By the way, lest anyone think that prescription drug woes are limited to seniors, experts’ worries are growing about younger Americans’ overmedication, too: The major drug of concern for them is adderall, a hybrid often used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, or even shorter ADD. Adderall, which is taken less often and is longer lasting, has replaced Ritalin, an older drug of choice to try to improve patients’ focus and intellectual performance. An estimated 3.5 million youngsters are now taking prescription meds to cope with diagnosed ADD. But now that this therapy has become common and accepted, it has transformed for older users, many of whom may have started with attention drugs as youngsters but now claim they’re helpful in the stressful, demanding corporate world into which they have ascended. Silicon Valley, media reports say, is preoccupied with mind enhancement, entailing the taking of multiple medications. Some of these, like adderall, require prescriptions. None of the therapies have been clinically tested and proven. They also bleed into another big area where Americans can’t seem to unhook themselves from their pill passion: vitamins, supplements, and outright bunk and dangerous medications from naturopathy and homeopathy, as well as common over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.
Reconsider whether you need OTC drugs, vitamins, supplements
Even as department stores and other major retailers seem to be vanishing from affluent areas of America’s cities and suburbs, some curious temples to health and well-being seem to be sprouting up like spring wildflowers after heavy rains. Yet scientific evidence in favor of the extensive wares hawked at vitamin and supplement outlets is sparse at best.
Curiously, the crowd that flocks to vitamins and supplements may be, again, as the New York Times reports, among the healthiest Americans. They are “more likely than nonusers to report being in very good or excellent health, to use alcohol moderately, to refrain from cigarette smoking, to exercise frequently and to have health insurance. Other studies have shown that supplement use is also more frequent among those who are older, who weigh less and have higher levels of education and socioeconomic status.”
300,000 OTC meds
Besides vitamins and supplements, Americans also stockpile and consume big quantities of over-the-counter drugs. There are more than 300,000 such products, and they can be safe, useful, effective, and cost-saving —an estimated $100 billion because, unlike prescription drugs, they don’t require doctor visits and diagnostic tests. Consumers need to know that the standards and regulation of OTC products differ from those for prescription drugs: the FDA oversees prescription products with some rigor (including requiring extensive testing in advance), while the Federal Trade Commission regulates more readily available OTC items, monitoring such areas as their advertising and promotion, ingredient quality, and how they are made. More and more medications are moving from prescription to over the counter status.
In summary, rather than considering drugs and pills of any kind as a first and only option, they should be regarded with care and taken only after study and with due caution.
Paring your daily pill intake
Are you ready to reconsider all the pills and meds in
your home, top to bottom? You can start with an inventory. Examine the containers to see if you can figure how old they might be, if they have expiration dates, and if those have passed. Meds lose their potency over time and shouldn’t be kept for long periods, especially if you park them in a bathroom medicine cabinet where they’re exposed to temperature changes, humidity, and light. (They’re not stored any better, by the way, on the kitchen counter.) Are the prescription or OTC drugs, vitamins, and supplements older than a year? Maybe they should go—discard them in responsible ways (see sidebar), and know that reducing stores of drugs can cut down on the chances they will be abused or misused (see sidebar on keeping kids safe).
Before you scratch drugs off your personal consumption lists, as mentioned above, discuss prospective changes with both your doctor and pharmacist.
Many doctors, frankly, have become too quick to dash off scripts, finding it fast, easy, and lucrative to prescribe drugs for their patients. Studies show too many medical practitioners fall prey to even the slightest pitches from Big Pharma sales reps. Your doctor’s prescription pad, in effect, may be for sale for a friendly lunch with pizza and beer, I’m sad to report. Many patients, doctors also hasten to note, are swayed by voluminous TV, radio, and print ads, and they show up for office visits demanding drugs by name, even if they’re inappropriate.
As you spring-clean the drugs that you and your loved ones take, there’s another step to consider: Take care of yourself in different ways. Instead of taking blood pressure meds, for example, might you alter your diet and lose weight? Instead of loading up with vitamins and supplements, could you commit to eating regular, balanced, and nutritious meals? Could your body be telling you something important about your life if you need sleep aids, stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs to get through your work week? We all might want to see how we can cut the collective national risks and costs of our high consumption of drugs by just saying no.
Here’s hoping that a changing season and a fresh mindset about more healthful living keeps you feeling fitter and stronger in the days ahead!
IN THIS ISSUE
Break out of the prescription drug frenzy
Reconsider whether you need OTC drugs, vitamins, supplements
Getting rid of unneeded drugs and reducing their supply in your home can be a life changer and saver for your loved ones, especially your children.
A national nonprofit dedicated to improving child safety notes, “Medications are the leading cause of child poisoning. In 2013, more than 59,000 children were seen in emergency room for medicine poisoning. That’s one child every nine minutes. Almost all of these visits are because the child got into medicines during a moment alone.”
If kids live with you, consider childproofing your home by putting drugs out of sight and locked up. Think like a kid, and take preventive steps so prescription and OTC drugs, vitamins, and supplements don’t get left carelessly in spots like purses, nightstands, dressers, and kitchen counters. Take care so protective caps and seals get put back in place on drug containers after pills are consumed.
Be sure that somewhere the maker information is available about any pills or drugs. Use caution and only the dosing means that manufacturers provide—don’t guess equivalencies with a kitchen spoon, then leave it where kids can get at it.
Here’s the national, 24/7 poison help line:1-800-222-1222. Post it near a land line, enter it in your smartphone. Be sure the babysitter or any other child care knows about this lifesaving service.
Spring-cleaning your house of pills can be important in getting unwanted drugs away from not only youngsters but also their older siblings. Sadly, some teens start on the path to abuse with their parents’ handy supply of prescription drugs, particularly powerful painkillers. Keeping them secure or eliminating them can be wise and helpful.
If patients choose to get rid of drugs on their own, they should remove them from their original containers and mix them in disposable bags or containers (yogurt cups or margarine tubs) with undesirable matter such as cat litter or coffee grounds. These then can be safely tossed in the regular garbage. The drugs’ original containers should be ripped up or if they are vials they should be cleared of identifying information, say by using a permanent marker to blot out your name, address, and other prescription data.