Elderly in South often prescribed drugs with dangerous side effects

Drugmakers have sometimes been accused of marketing drugs for the elderly that might not be in their best interest. But a new study says doctors in the Southern part of the U.S. are too often prescribing drugs for elderly patients that can have severe side effects and for which there are better alternatives.

"We started this study because we know that these medications are likely to have more harms than benefits in older patients," Dr. Amal Trivedi, told The New York Times. "We have tried to reduce the use of these medications, and it's important to figure out exactly how common they are among the elderly and what types of factors contribute to their use." 

Health experts say that when it comes to prescribing an anti-anxiety drug for an older person, Pfizer's ($PFE) Xanax is a better choice that its Valium. That is because Valium is harder to metabolize, meaning older users are sedated longer, which might result in a fall. Doctors have also found that some diabetes drugs and muscle relaxers are better for older people for the same reason. 

That information is not really new, but a finding by researchers that in the Southern part of the U.S. more than 1 in 5 patients older than 65 are likely to get one or more medications on a list  of "110 drugs to avoid in the elderly" compiled by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, The New York Times reports. These are drugs that have such severe side effects in the elderly that health authorities have told doctors they should avoid giving them to their older patients. The study is published in The Journal of General Internal Medicine

The researchers were not able to pinpoint the reasons that use of these drugs in the elderly is more common in the South but postulate that socioeconomic factors like education and access to quality medical care might be related to some of the regional differences. Researchers evaluated data from Medicare Advantage plans on more than 6 million older men and women across the entire U.S. that found that 1.3 million of them, roughly 20%, had been prescribed at least one high-risk medication in 2009, and 5% had been given two, despite the fact there generally were safe alternatives. 

Drugmakers themselves have been accused of pushing some drugs on doctors that are inappropriate for older people. Just last year, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) settled a bunch of cases tied to the dangers of taking antibiotic Levaquin. It was alleged in some cases that J&J's Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical division had downplayed tendon risks in elderly patients in an effort to sell more product, an allegation the company has refuted.

- read the New York Times story