The New York Times reported on new research that shows there’s been an extremely sharp rise in the use of multiple psychotropic drugs in older Americans, even those without mental health diagnoses.

The number of retirement-age Americans taking at least three psychiatric drugs more than doubled between 2004 and 2013, even though almost half of them had no mental health diagnosis on record, researchers reported on Monday.

“The new analysis, based on data from doctors’ office visits, suggests that inappropriate prescribing to older people is more common than previously thought.” NY Times

The rise in occurrence has been steep. Elderly patients were being prescribed three or more psychotropic drugs (for sleep, pain, and/or psychiatric symptoms), in 2013 at a rate 150 times more than in 2004.

The issue is concerning; poly-pharmacy is simply more dangerous for the elderly. Side-effects can be serious. Confusion, dizziness, and cognitive issues are more likely, for example. Ambien. Xanax. Oxycodone. Prozac. Valium. Lorazepam. These are potent drugs and a cocktail of them can be dangerous.

While this is concerning, the study doesn’t explain why this is occurring. But because much of the problem is in rural areas, it seems to suggest, says one of the researchers, that the lack of psychotherapy and other treatments to help patients deal with anxiety and depression might be a factor.

You can read a more in depth piece on the study in the story, but I do want to say that I do hear occasionally from elderly patients or their families that their prescriptions are confusing or worrying them. In some instances, they don’t feel they’re given adequate information about why they are being prescribed certain medications.  Or, with little discussion, after complaining of insomnia, mild pain, or mild anxiety, they’re being prescribed strong medications, with inadequate monitoring of side-effects or correcting the dosages.

The elderly are a precious asset to our society. They have so much wisdom, experience, and knowledge to teach us. They need our care and I strongly believe we should all make their mental, physical and spiritual health a priority.

But it can be tempting when there are difficulties in communication (or a reticence to “be a bother” as one elderly person recently told me), to just prescribe medications to relieve unpleasant symptoms, without fully getting to the bottom of the problem. I’m not sure this occurs as rarely as we would wish.

The elderly are often portrayed as having nothing to offer. This can lead to a benign (and not so benign) neglect of a vital group in our society. These people have given their lives for the younger generation and they deserve our love and compassion.

If you have aging parents, family, or friends, ask them if they are happy with their healthcare. Investigate. Don’t be shy about advocating for any patient, elderly adult (disabled adult or child, too.)

On a personal note, C.R.’s 100 year old grandmother was moved to a nursing home many years ago. It was an eight hour round trip from her home. C.R. visited and saw she wasn’t clothed or fed properly. She arranged regular visits from her and two friends who volunteered to help keep the staff on their toes, and her grandmother was properly monitored and cared for. The staff saw that someone cared about her. Together, this group of friends made sure Grandmother wasn’t neglected. She lived the last 2 years of her life with dignity, the recipient of compassionate, responsible health care.