The number of prescription medication that Americans take is skyrocketing.  According to 2010 data from the CDC, nine out of 10 people over the age of 60 take at least one prescription per month, 76 percent take two or more, and 37 percent take five or more.  Most of these medications treat chronic lifestyle medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and reflux.

Not surprisingly, the most common question that almost every patient asks me is if they can come off some of their medications.  It is a good question.  Here is some practical advice about how to know if you might be taking too many medications, and what to do about it

  1. Do not take medications that are prescribed for a condition that another medication may be causing.  For example, some people get gout (a painful inflammation of the toe or joint caused by elevated uric acid) because they are on a diuretic, which increases the body's uric acid level.  The answer is not to be on a medication for gout, but to stop the diuretic!

  2. Review your medication list with your doctor.  Often, medications are added on by a specialist for a particular condition, and the medication is carried on indefinitely.   I saw a patient last week who had elevated blood pressure and was on a medication called meloxicam for arthritis.  He was taking it every day, even though he no longer had pain, and it was raising his blood pressure. Stopping it lowered his blood pressure without medication. Your family doctor or internist, who has the big picture in mind, may be able to help you get off such  medication

  3. Keep a list of your medication with you, either in your wallet, purse, or on your cell phone.  If you ever have an emergency and cannot remember your medications, it can be helpful and possibly life- saving.  It also may prevent a new prescription being written for a medication similar to what you are already taking.

  4. Do not stop your medication cold turkey, or without talking to your doctor.  Whenever there is some bad press about medication for high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure, I will inevitably see a patient who has stopped his or her medication because of the report.  This can cause harm by causing sudden cholesterol, sugar or blood pressure elevation.

  5. All over the counter medication is not harmless. We often assume that supplements cannot cause side effects, and this is not true.  Some weight loss supplements can be very harmful.  Others, such as St John's Wort, can interfere with many cholesterol lowering medications

  6. Ask your doctor if non -prescription drug approaches may be an option.  If you are able to lose weight, and exercise, adult onset diabetes can often go away.  There are some non-prescription alternatives to statins for those unable to tolerate them.

  7. Don't fib about taking your medication.  Adding on another, possibly stronger, new medication for a chronic problem because you are embarrassed to tell your doctor that you did not take what was prescribed is never a good idea and can result in overmedication

  8. Seniors need to pay particular care to the problem of polypharmacy.  As we age, medication is processed differently by the body, and lower doses may be necessary to prevent unpleasant side effects

  9. Understand what each of your medications is supposed to do.  Ask your doctor questions about possible side effects.  But try to do this in a non- accusatory manner when you are asking - remember that he or she has feelings too!

  10. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.  If you have had a side effect or cannot tolerate a medication, you should not stay on that medication.  Don't just stop it.  Instead, let your doctor know, as there may be an alternative mediation that is similar, generic and inexpensive.  Sometimes it is important to keep trying until you find the one that is well tolerated and effective.

Dr. David Becker is a board certified cardiologist with Chestnut Hill Temple Cardiology in Flourtown, Pa. and has been in practice for 25 years. In 1993, after extensive research, Dr. Becker launched Healthy Change of Heart™, an innovative 10-week program designed to reverse heart disease and improve quality of life through diet, exercise, and stress management. Since then, thousands of patients have participated in the program, achieving significant results in improving cardiac wellness.

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