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Forgetting to Take Medications Can be Costly

The older we get, the more medications many of us seem to need to stay healthy. It takes more than just a good memory to keep track of all those pills. It also takes organization and following doctor's orders.

When former president Bill Clinton left office, he quit taking a cholesterol-lowering drug called a statin. Dr. Richard Stein of the American Heart Association says that was a mistake. "When you stop refilling these pills, you're giving up that 30 to 40 per cent reduction on your chance of having a heart attack."

Quadruple bypass surgery found almost complete blockage in some of Mr. Clinton's arteries. Statin drugs help reduce the risk of heart attacks. Stopping a medication, like a statin, is a common mistake.

A study in the Netherlands of almost 60,000 people has shown that almost half of those taking statin drugs stopped taking them within a two-year period. Just one third used them consistently. Some reasons why: the cost of the drug may be too high or there are unusual side effects.

But Dr. Richard Stein says a more common reason is because patients didn't notice an immediate difference in how they felt. "We are good for [at] taking a pill for sore throats or coughs because we have the symptoms. We are terrible at taking pills for high cholesterol."

Elderly patients frequently have more than just one medication to take each day. An experimental program at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. showed that when older people were given individually measured packs of prescriptions, they were far more successful in following doctor's orders. Dr. Allen Taylor explains. "In the study we found that medication adherence improved from 61 percent before the program, to over 96 percent."

One example: a majority of the older patients at Walter Reed who took statin drugs found that their blood pressure and cholesterol levels improved while they took the pills consistently. That is a lesson even a former U.S. president had to learn.