The elderly person is likely to experience many socioeconomic, emotional and physiological changes which will have a major bearing on psychotropic drug treatment. Such a population is therefore more likely to be exposed to more types of drug treatment than younger age groups.
It has been found that the vast majority of elderly patients being treated for a psychiatric disorder also have at least one physical disorder that requires medication; 80% of all elderly patients in the United States have at least one chronic physical illness. Thus the elderly are the most likely group to experience adverse drug reactions and interactions. Studies show that patients over the age of 70 years have approximately twice as many adverse drug reactions as those under 50 years.
Another problem which particularly affects the elderly population concerns compliance with prescribed medication. Factors such as impaired vision, making it difficult for the patient to recognize the various medications, hearing, manual dexterity and cognition all contribute to the non-compliance. Perhaps one of the most important factors that governs non-compliance is the increased frequency and severity of the side effects that occur with most types of medication in the elderly. This may be illustrated by the tricyclic antidepressants and phenothiazine neuroleptics, both these classes of drugs having pronounced antimuscarinic activity even in the physically healthy young patient. In the elderly there is evidence of excessive sensitivity to the anticholinergic effects of drugs. This is compounded by the decline in cognitive function which accompanies ageing. Thus one must anticipate that patient compliance for any psychotropic drug with pronounced anti-cholinergic and sedative side effects will be low.
Another problem which can compromise compliance concerns the hypotensive actions of many psychotropic drugs (e.g. tricyclic antidepressants, phenothiazine neuroleptics). Due to the alphaj receptor antagonistic action of these drugs, they are likely to cause severe orthostatic hypotension in some elderly patients. This can cause patients to fall and damage themselves. The increased sensitivity of the elderly to the sedative effects of drugs is also well known. As hypnotics and anxiolytics are frequently administered to the elderly, the sedative effects of these drugs can be minimized by using drugs that have a short to medium half-life. There seems little justification for using the long half-life sedative hypnotics in the elderly patient.
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