The official death report for Elvis Presley–who died almost thirty years ago this year–has been contradicted numerous times. Most people contend that it says he died of a massive heart attack, which makes sense considering his southern fried diet. Others say, however, that he really didn’t have that much sign of heart disease yet…but probably would have later in life. He also had an enlarged heart that a person can live with for years without necessarily dying. And then others say that a particular word was written as cause of death on his death certificate: Polypharmacy. This is the condition sometimes unknowingly causing fatal complications due to overmedication or medications from different doctors or pharmacies. If this truly was what killed Elvis (and we won’t truly know for a long time, because his death certificate is locked up until 2017!)–what does it say for the rest of the population in the world who usually have to take multiple medications that could mix into something toxic?
As much as the United States’ health care system needs various elements of overhaul, we’re also living in a time when pharmaceutical companies increasingly lobby politicians and doctors to get FDA-approved (or so we’re told) drugs on the market of occasional questionable value. We all know the pharmaceutical industry is both a blessing and a curse in both helping people live longer…and conversely making them sicker with side effects or causing other potential long-term health problems. But while most doctors are careful in giving the right doses to their patients–a good majority of adults (and children) on the planet have to take more than one medication for a specific health problem. The reality is that even doctors don’t really know the potential toxic combinations mixing certain medications can create until it actually happens to someone. The same applies when someone takes an over-the-counter medication that may not be compatible with a prescription drug. Many doctors like to try out new prescription drugs on patients, too, that can add to the mystery of what that drug will do if mixed with common over-the-counter medications.
You guessed right if you wondered Polypharmacy usually happens to elderly people more than people younger. A particular acronym was created for elderly people who have a health event due to Polypharmacy. “ADE” stands for Adverse Drug Event…and studies conducted within the last year showed that 1,500 elderly Medicare patients out of 27,600 studied had at least one adverse drug event within a year’s time. This is because a lot of elderly people get prescribed drugs that aren’t really necessary–most notably blood pressure medications. One of the most common symptoms is overmedication of various blood pressure medications that can cause an elderly person’s blood pressure to dip too low. When that happens, it can cause fainting, dizziness–or even strokes in worst-case-scenarios. It’s not just always from one medication though. On average, most elderly people take close to five medications at once that can brew who knows what kind of toxic soup. That becomes exponentially dangerous when most polls show patients also take on average of two over-the-counter medications (usually allergy medicines) with their prescription ones.
Medication side-effects giving the illusion of a disease-that begets the use of another medication…
This particular scenario isn’t just common with the elderly–but also any age group for decades now. It’s still speculation, but Elvis’s increasing medications from various doctors may have been because he thought something else was wrong with him when it was actually medications causing a symptom. In the 1970’s, doctors giving certain drugs as placebos to famous people seems to have been common. It’s no doubt, though, that many of Elvis’s doctors were irresponsible in giving him certain drugs without knowing exactly what else he was taking. It eventually led to Elvis reportedly living in a haze the last few years of his life that broke his body down faster than it should have. That started a long string of other ordinary people in America who likely have mistakenly thought something was wrong with them and subsequently received an unnecessary medication to make it go away.
The confusion over what may be a real disease and what’s just a side effect may be behind various mystery illnesses we’ve heard about in the last twenty years. So far, no evidence says one way or the other, but an example such as Chronic Fatigue Symptom could very well be side-effects of popular medications people take. Even many young people have dealt with CFS since the 1980’s when new, popular medications were developed and continue to be used today. Other mysterious symptoms people in all age groups have reported to their doctors (that usually can’t be determined by normal and expensive tests) have likely been the result of a medication. The older a person gets, though, the more likely that mixing of medication will lead to the formation of real diseases because of chemical changes in the body. It starts to lead to a mass confusion on which thing causes what. No real clear definitions (either on purpose or because it’s impossible to) leads to one medication that brings on another…that brings on yet another in a lot of people.
You’d think most people would know going through different pharmacies to get prescription drugs isn’t a good idea. Yet, some people in America are forced to because of health insurance problems. When a doctor doesn’t know where a patient is getting all their medications–it’s usually the first step toward an unknowing self-inflicted polypharmacy. Just about any warning you see about avoiding polypharmacy says to keep record of every medication you take and show it to your doctor. If you’re living with an older relative taking multiple medications (including over-the-counter meds), make sure he or she compiles a similar list to share with their physician(s). Any doctor worth their license will take that list and put it in your (and his) files.
The Beers Criteria
No, this has nothing to do with beer–or even Elvis drinking beer (which he apparently didn’t often). And if only beer could be a great antidote to disease rather than having medications that sometimes come in tablet form as big as a quarter. This is actually alternately called the “Beers List”–named after a doctor, Dr. Mark Beers. In 1991, Dr. Beers and a team of other doctors did a study of the most common types of prescription drugs used in the world and created a list of the ones that may pose the greatest dangers of side effects in mainly elderly people. This list is used as a supposed guide in helping doctors determine which medications to avoid when trying to treat the elderly with medications. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a list done yet that can be used for younger people who can easily get roped into polypharmacy themselves if not careful. In our age, everybody is on a medication of some sort–along with someone mixing it with an over-the-counter allergy or cold medicine. A generalized list of drugs that might not mix with one another would probably be helpful too…but also a major undertaking to study. This list at least manages to stave off some elements of polypharmacy in elderly people who experience the hardships of it more often.
In 2003, the Beers List was updated to include more names of medications to keep away from the elderly. This isn’t really preventing polypharmacy from still happening more often than it should recently. The disconnect between doctor and patient is an ongoing problem that has accountability on both sides.
As some people reflect on Elvis’s death for the umpteenth time on the 30th anniversary of his death this August–let’s hope people find lessons in how he died. Elvis’s death was a totality of complex reasons…but overmedication was at least partly to blame. Also, as some doctors contend that he really shouldn’t have died that young based on natural health factors…it puts polypharmacy in a dangerous light for not just older people but young too. Miscommunication can easily happen when you’re a busy person, which makes getting your life organized (even in health care) all the more important.