We have a prescription drug problem in the United States. Nearly 9 in 10 older adults aged 65 and over are taking at least one prescription drug. Over half are taking 4 or more drugs. Seniors have tripled their medication rate from 20 years ago.
Drugs do save lives. But we seem to be using them to avoid doing what's necessary to avoid disease in the first place.
As one pharmaceutical executive told me, the most impactful thing we can do to improve the healthcare system is to focus on preventative care - healthier diets, more physical activity, more social engagement.
That said, let's take a look at the top 10 drugs prescribed to medicare recipients and see what the data tells us.
TOP 10 MEDICARE PRESCRIPTION DRUG MEDICATIONS BY NUMBER OF USERS
- Cholesterol - Atorvastatin Calcium - 15M+
- Blood Pressure - Amlodipine Besylate - 10.5M+
- Blood Pressure - Lisinopril - 8.5M+
- Hyperthyroidism - Levothyroxine Sodium - 8M+
- Blood Pressure - Losartan Potassium - 7M+
- Heartburn - Omeprazole - 7M+
- Anti-Seizure - Gabapentin - 7M~
- Blood Pressure - Metoprolol Succinate - 6M+
- BP / Diabetes. - Metformin HCI - 6M~
- Blood Pressure - Lisinopril - 5.5M+
So what can we learn from the data above? 80% of medications taken are largely the result of poor lifestyle choices.
First, 6 out of the top 10 prescribed drugs for older adults are blood pressure related. That's a staggering number, given that a significant portion of those suffering from high blood pressure could have avoided it in the first place, or reduce it in the second place, by modifying their behaviour. How you ask? Simple, eat a low sodium Mediterranean diet, exercise, stop smoking, limit drinking.
Second, 2 out of the next 4 medications are also largely, although not entirely, a result of poor lifestyle choices. Elevated blood cholesterol levels can largely be avoided by improving one's diet and adding a healthy dose of exercise. Heartburn can also largely be avoided by adjusting one's diet and being patient and committed enough to figure out which foods you need to avoid.
3 STRATEGIES TO AVOID THE MOST PRESCRIBED MEDICATIONS FOR OLDER ADULTS
Let's be very clear. No one is recommending you stop taking your blood pressure or cholesterol pills right away. Any changes must be discussed with your doctor. That said, instead of trying to mask your poor diet and lack of exercise with medication that only addresses the symptom not the cause, why not root out the cause and avoid the medication?
The great advantage of this approach, is that even if you fail to bring down your cholesterol or high blood pressure, a better diet, more exercise and weight loss will have a slew of other impactful benefits - you'll have more energy, sleep better, improved cognition, better mood and more independence for longer. You'll also reduce your risk of falling - the leading cause of injury among older adults.
Here are three things you can do, after discussing the plan with your doctor, to help reduce your need for blood pressure and cholesterol medications.
- Low Sodium Mediterranean Diet or DASH Diet
- The DASH diet is an evidence based diet proven to lower blood pressure and lower blood cholesterol in many people.
- Avoid: salty foods, trans fats, fatty meats, sugary drinks, sweets, fatty dairy & limit alcohol
- Eat More: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, fat free dairy, chicken, fish
- The DASH diet is recommended by the NIH and ranked as the top diet to reduce blood pressure
- More Aerobic Exercise
- The American Heart Association has said that exercise is scientifically proven to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure
- The AMA also states exercise should be tried as a first line of defence to improve both conditions when moderate
- How much? 150-300 min of moderate physical activity per week or 75-150 minutes of intense physical activity per week
- More Resistance Training
- Resistance training, has also been shown to have blood pressure and cholesterol lowering effects
- Examples of resistance training include weight training, calisthenics, bands, yoga and pilates
- Try doing resistance training 2-3 times per week
So the bottom line is, of the top 10 medications taken, 8 are for conditions that are avoidable through lifestyle changes. If we would just eat healthier and exercise more a large portion of us would be able to get off many of our meds and lead healthier, more active and energetic lives.
So give it a try!