A century ago, the average American could expect to live 50 years or so. Today, we can expect to live nearly 80. That’s a big jump. What contributed to that big jump in longevity? A lot of things — including the development of medications that prevent and treat serious illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. In addition to all the good they can do, though, drugs can also cause serious side effects and interact with one another in potentially harmful ways. That’s why weighing a medication’s benefits against the risks it poses is so important. It’s particularly important in later life, because age-related physical changes put older adults at particularly high risk of drug side effects and other “adverse drug events.”
To help healthcare providers safely prescribe medications for older adults, the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recently revised, updated and expanded the Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults. The criteria were first published by the late geriatrician Mark Beers, MD, and other experts in 1991, and were revised in 1997 and 2003. They have long been the leading source of information about safe prescribing for adults 65 and older.
The new 2012 AGS Updated Beers Criteria for Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults, identifies drugs that are potentially inappropriate for older adults (please note the word “potentially” – it’s important) and assigns these drugs to one of three categories. The first category includes medications that are potentially inappropriate for older people because they either pose high risks of adverse effects or seem to have limited effectiveness in older patients, and because there are alternatives to these medications. The second category includes drugs that are potentially inappropriate for older people who have certain health problems, because these drugs can make those problems worse. The third includes medications that, studies suggest, pose risks for older adults in general – but may nevertheless be the best choice for a particular individual if prescribed with care.
The AGS’ Foundation for Heath in Aging has posted tools and resources based on the new AGS Beers Criteria here, on its new website. These include easy-to-read versions of the Beers lists, a Question and Answer sheet, and an AGS tip sheet explaining how to use medications safely. These publications can help you learn more about medication safety. I encourage you to take a look.
What if you discover that a medication you’re taking is on one of the Beers lists? Don’t panic. And definitely don’t stop taking it. You’re taking that drug because you have a health problem that needs treatment, and suddenly stopping your medication could be dangerous. Keep in mind that just because a drug is identified as being potentially inappropriate for older adults doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for all adults 65 and older. Different people can respond in different ways to the same medication. If you’re concerned, call your healthcare provider and get more information. Getting answers to your questions about your health is important. That’s why our website is here – for you.