As the adage goes, too much of everything is not good. The same goes when it comes to supplements people take in supposedly for good health. One in six adults regularly take in potentially fatal combinations of prescription and over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements, a new study found.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago report a twofold increase of people using dangerous combinations of medicines and supplements. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of seniors aged 62 to 85 years old in the United States who are taking supplements increased from 52 to 64 percent.

Dubbed polypharmacy, or taking multiple medicines for the sole purpose of obtaining optimal health, could actually lead to dangerous effects on the body. People who got this habit are at a greater risk of experiencing major drug interactions.

Dietary Supplement Use Soars

In the study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers wanted to characterize changes in the prevalence of medication use and identify types of potential major drug-to-drug interactions.

Comprising of 2,351 participants, the researchers found that the use of cholesterol-lowering statins increased from 34 to 46 percent. People taking blood-thinning medicines also rose from 33 to 43 percent, and the intake of omega-3 fish oil pills increased from 5 to 19 percent.

Though the use of OTC drugs decreased from 44 to 38 percent, the use of dietary supplements increased from 52 to 64 percent. The use of hazardous drug combinations predisposing people to interactions increased from 8 percent in 2005-2006 to 15 percent in 2010-2011.

"Many older patients seeking to improve their cardiovascular health are also regularly using interacting drug combinations that may worsen cardiovascular risk," said Dima Mazen Qato, assistant professor of pharmacy systems, outcomes and policy at UIC.

What Can Be Done?

The researchers suspect that one of the reasons OTC drug use declined in the five-year period is that many of these drugs became regulated, especially those that carries allergy risk. This means that when these drugs or supplements are regulated, the rampant use could be controlled.

Even if pharmacies play a major role in reducing the risk of drug combinations, they are not the only ones that can stem the problem. In some pharmacies, they use a database to alert them of potential drug combinations, but they do not have access to data from other pharmacies.

Health care providers should cautiously consider the adverse effects of commonly used prescription and OTC medicines, especially when treating older adults. They should counsel patients on the risks and improve safety by making sure combinations would not lead to potentially fatal and adverse drug effects. Federal regulators should also monitor the use of supplements.

"I think we have to keep in mind that while it's important to improve access to medications, we need to make sure they're used safely," said Qato.

Photo: Tim Gillin | Flickr

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