While medications from the time of antiquity have saved lives and do so more and more over time, have fostered health and increased longevity, too many medications or polypharmacy, particularly if it is not necessary, could cause more harms than benefits. Polypharmacy is seen in all age ranges and in all countries, but more in patients with comorbidities or more than one medical conditions, specially in the older population that is more risky and cause more harms and is more common in developing countries. Although it is assumed commonly that polypharmacy is used in comorbidity conditions, one would be surprised that it is common as well in single medical conditions, when physicians helplessly add to the number of medications to bring under control a non-responsive medial condition. (1-3)
The common and known unfavorable effects or harms of polypharmacy are adverse drug reactions, drug-drug interactions, low adherence to drug therapy and stopping all the medications by the patient, psychological dependency of the patient that only medications could help so not to resort to non-pharmacotherapy modalities if available, also physical dependency if the medication (s) are addictive, and finally the burden of the body tissues and organs by too many medications as foreign objects, specially on liver and kidneys that mostly metabolize the medications. In addition, it is also assumed that polypharmacy causes unnecessary health expenditure, directly due to redundant drug sales and indirectly due to the increased level of hospitalization caused by drug-related problems. Drug-related problems are reported to cause a substantial proportion of all emergency treatment and admissions to hospitals such as in elderly population. (4-7)
Unfortunately many studies of polypharmacy have primarily been conducted on samples of elderly individuals admitted to hospitals or nursing homes, and only a few have been population-based studies, though some of these again have also been limited to elderly individuals. A recent register study showed that 2/3 of all individuals in a national population who were being prescribed with 5 or more drugs were < 70 years of age, indicating that multiple medication use is not only common in elderly population. A recent Swedish Prescribed Drug Registery in the period of 2005-2008 has shown an 8.2% increase in polypharmacy (>5 medications). (8-9)
In this article, we discuss first polypharmacy in different age groups, elderly, adults, children and adolescents, then across a few common medical disciplines, among comorbidities and single medical conditions.
Polypharmacy across life span:
In the above mentioned Swedish study of polypharmacy between 2005-2008, the prevalence of more than one medication in elderly (>70) was 80% on average, with more than 5 drugs averaged 45%, and more than 10 medications was about 13% on average. In adult age group, the prevalence of more than one medication was 30-40% in the age range of 20-49, but that jumped to > 50% in 50’s and to about 65% in 60’s. The use of more than 5 and 10 medications were rare until the 5th and 6th decades of life that was about 10% and 20%, but the use of more than 10 medications was still rare. In children and adolescence surprisingly the use of more than one medication was quite high about 18% in the first decade and 22% in the second decade of life. The number of individuals on polypharmacy and excessive polypharmacy over 5 medications were quite high, >4,500 in the first decade of life, >9,000 in the second, about 18,000 in the third, >35,000 in the fourth, close to 70,000 in the fifth, >138,000 in the sixth, >220,000 in the seventh decade of life, and in the elderly, 70-79 years old it was close to 250,000 and in the 80-89 years age group, it was >210,000. Surprisinlgy in all age groups the prevalance of polypharmacy has been increasing over years from 2005-2008. (9)
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