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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

UNC: Taking Too Many Medications May Increase Frailty in Older Adults

Older adults frequently take multiple medications to treat different health conditions. New research findings suggest, however, that polypharmacy – commonly defined as the simultaneous use of five or more medications – may contribute to frailty, which can leave older adults more vulnerable to worsening health outcomes, including hospitalizations, falls, disability and death.

The study, “Polypharmacy and Incident Frailty in a Longitudinal Community-Based Cohort Study,” was published online October 24 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Lead author Ms. Shahar Shmuel, a doctoral student in the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology, says the intersection of polypharmacy and frailty is a bit of a “chicken-or-egg” scenario in which it is difficult to determine whether the cumulative impact of multiple medications causes declining health in older patients, or if their declining health necessitates multiple medications to manage symptoms and conditions.

“Many previous studies looking at the association between polypharmacy and frailty have been cross-sectional, creating some ambiguity about which came first,” says Ms. Shmuel. “We aimed to address that with a longitudinal study in which we initially screened individuals for frailty status and then followed non-frail individuals over time to see if they developed frailty.”

Study analysis showed that the risk of developing frailty over time among individuals taking 5+ medications was 1.4 times the risk among those taking four or fewer medications.

Gillings School faculty on the paper include Dr. Jennifer Lund, associate professor, and Dr. Yvonne Golightly, assistant professor, both in the Department of Epidemiology.

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