Basic and Clinical Pharmacology, 13th Ed.

Special Aspects of Geriatric Pharmacology

Bertram G. Katzung, MD, PhD


A 77-year-old man comes to your office at his wife’s insistence. He has had documented moderate hypertension for 18 years but does not like to take his medications. He says he has no real complaints, but his wife remarks that he has become much more forgetful lately and has almost stopped reading the newspaper and watching television. A Mini-Mental State Examination reveals that he is oriented as to name and place but is unable to give the month or year. He cannot remember the names of his three adult children nor three random words (eg, tree, flag, chair) for more than 2 minutes. No cataracts are visible, but he is unable to read standard newsprint without a powerful magnifier. Why doesn’t he take his antihypertensive medications? What therapeutic measures are available for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease? How might macular degeneration be treated?

Society has traditionally classified everyone over 65 as “elderly,” but most authorities consider the field of geriatrics to apply to persons over 75—even though this too is an arbitrary definition. Furthermore, chronologic age is only one determinant of the changes pertinent to drug therapy that occur in older people. In addition to the chronic diseases of adulthood, the elderly have an increased incidence of many conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and vascular dementia; stroke; visual impairment, especially cataracts and macular degeneration; atherosclerosis, coronary and peripheral vascular disease, and heart failure; diabetes; arthritis, osteoporosis, and fractures; cancer; and incontinence. As a result, the need for drug treatment is great in this age group. And as the average life span approaches (and in some countries, already exceeds) 80, this need will increase dramatically.

When all confounders are accounted for, age itself is still the strongest risk factor for cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and most forms of cancer. Research into the molecular basis of aging has answered a few questions and opened many more. It has long been known that caloric restriction alone can prolong the life span of animals, including mammals. Some evidence suggests that calorically restricted mice also remain healthier for a longer time. Drugs that mimic caloric restriction have been shown to increase lifespan in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, as well as other species, including mice. Metformin and rapamycin each increase life span alone and appear to have synergistic effects when given together. Sirtuins, a class of endogenous protein deacetylase enzymes, may be linked to life span in some species, but activators (such as resveratrol) of certain sirtuins have not been shown to prolong life in mice. Assuming that safer alternatives to metformin or rapamycin can be found, should everyone over the age of 40 or 60 years take such a drug? Few would maintain that a simple increase in the years of life—life span—is desirable unless accompanied by an increase in the years of healthy life—“health span.”

Important changes in responses to some drugs occur with increasing age in many individuals. For other drugs, age-related changes are minimal, especially in the “healthy old.” Drug usage patterns also change as a result of the increasing incidence of disease with age and the tendency to prescribe heavily for patients in nursing homes. General changes in the lives of older people have significant effects on the way drugs are used. Among these changes are the increased incidence with advancing age of several simultaneous diseases, nutritional problems, reduced financial resources, and—in some patients—decreased dosing adherence (also called compliance) for a variety of reasons. The health practitioner should be aware of the changes in pharmacologic responses that may occur in older people and should know how to deal with these changes.


In the general population, measurements of functional capacity of most of the major organ systems show a decline beginning in young adulthood and continuing throughout life. As shown in Figure 60–1, there is no “middle-age plateau” but rather a linear decrease beginning no later than age 45. However, these data reflect the mean and do not apply to every person above a certain age; approximately one third of healthy subjects have no age-related decrease in, for example, creatinine clearance up to the age of 75. Thus, the elderly do not lose specific functions at an accelerated rate compared with young and middle-aged adults but rather accumulate more deficiencies with the passage of time. Some of these changes result in altered pharmacokinetics. For the pharmacologist and the clinician, the most important of these is the decrease in renal function. Other changes and concurrent diseases may alter the pharmacodynamic characteristics of particular drugs in certain patients.


FIGURE 60–1 Effect of age on some physiologic functions. (Adapted, with permission, from Kohn RR: Principles of Mammalian Aging. Copyright © 1978 by Prentice-Hall, Inc. Used by permission of Pearson Education, Inc.)

Pharmacokinetic Changes

A. Absorption

There is little evidence of any major alteration in drug absorption with age. However, conditions associated with age may alter the rate at which some drugs are absorbed. Such conditions include altered nutritional habits, greater consumption of nonprescription drugs (eg, antacids and laxatives), and changes in gastric emptying, which is often slower in older persons, especially in older diabetics.

B. Distribution

Compared with young adults, the elderly have reduced lean body mass, reduced body water, and increased fat as a percentage of body mass. Some of these changes are shown in Table 60–1. There is usually a decrease in serum albumin, which binds many drugs, especially weak acids. There may be a concurrent increase in serum orosomucoid (α-acid glycoprotein), a protein that binds many basic drugs. Thus, the ratio of bound to free drug may be significantly altered. As explained in Chapter 3, these changes may alter the appropriate loading dose of a drug. However since both the clearance and the effects of drugs are related to the free concentration, the steady-state effects of a maintenance dosage regimen should not be altered by these factors alone. For example, the loading dose of digoxin in an elderly patient with heart failure should be reduced (if used at all) because of the decreased apparent volume of distribution. The maintenance dose may have to be reduced because of reduced clearance of the drug.

TABLE 60–1 Some changes related to aging that affect pharmacokinetics of drugs.


C. Metabolism

The capacity of the liver to metabolize drugs does not appear to decline consistently with age for all drugs. Animal studies and some clinical studies have suggested that certain drugs are metabolized more slowly in the elderly; some of these drugs are listed in Table 60–2. The greatest changes are in phase I reactions, ie, those carried out by microsomal P450 systems. There are much smaller changes in the ability of the liver to carry out conjugation (phase II) reactions (see Chapter 4). Some of these changes may be caused by decreased liver blood flow (Table 60–1), an important variable in the clearance of drugs that have a high hepatic extraction ratio. In addition, there is a decline with age of the liver’s ability to recover from injury, eg, that caused by alcohol or viral hepatitis. Therefore, a history of recent liver disease in an older person should lead to caution in dosing with drugs that are cleared primarily by the liver, even after apparently complete recovery from the hepatic insult. Finally, malnutrition and diseases that affect hepatic function—eg, heart failure—are more common in the elderly. Heart failure may dramatically alter the ability of the liver to metabolize drugs by reducing hepatic blood flow. Similarly, severe nutritional deficiencies, which occur more often in old age, may impair hepatic function.

TABLE 60–2 Effects of age on hepatic clearance of some drugs.


D. Elimination

Because the kidney is the major organ for clearance of drugs from the body, the age-related decline of renal functional capacity is very important. The decline in creatinine clearance occurs in about two thirds of the population. It is important to note that this decline is not reflected in an equivalent rise in serum creatinine because the production of creatinine is also reduced as muscle mass declines with age; therefore, serum creatinine alone is not an adequate measure of renal function. The practical result of this change is marked prolongation of the half-life of many drugs, and the possibility of accumulation to toxic levels if dosage is not reduced in size or frequency. Dosing recommendations for the elderly often include an allowance for reduced renal clearance. If only the young adult dosage is known for a drug that requires renal clearance, a rough correction can be made by using the Cockcroft-Gaultformula, which is applicable to patients from ages 40 through 80:


For women, the result should be multiplied by 0.85 (because of reduced muscle mass). It must be emphasized that this estimate is, at best, a population estimate and may not apply to a particular patient. If the patient has normal renal function (up to one third of elderly patients), a dose corrected on the basis of this estimate will be too low—but a low dose is initially desirable if one is uncertain of the renal function in any patient. Simple online calculators using the more modern MDRD (Modification of Diet in Renal Disease) formula are available, eg,

If a precise measure is needed, a standard 12- or 24-hour creatinine clearance determination should be obtained. As indicated above, nutritional changes alter pharmacokinetic parameters. A patient who is severely dehydrated (not uncommon in patients with stroke or other motor impairment) may have an additional marked reduction in renal drug clearance that is completely reversible by rehydration.

The lungs are important for the excretion of volatile drugs. As a result of reduced respiratory capacity (Figure 60–1) and the increased prevalence of active pulmonary disease in the elderly, the use of inhalation anesthesia is less common and intravenous agents more common in this age group. (See Chapter 25.)

Pharmacodynamic Changes

It was long believed that geriatric patients were much more “sensitive” to the action of many drugs, implying a change in the pharmacodynamic interaction of the drugs with their receptors. It is now recognized that many—perhaps most—of these apparent changes result from altered pharmacokinetics or diminished homeostatic responses. Clinical studies have supported the idea that the elderly are more sensitive to some sedative-hypnotics and analgesics. In addition, some data from animal studies suggest actual changes with age in the characteristics or numbers of a few receptors. The most extensive studies suggest a decrease in responsiveness to β-adrenoceptor agonists. Other examples are discussed below.

Certain homeostatic control mechanisms appear to be blunted in the elderly. Since homeostatic responses are often important components of the overall response to a drug, these physiologic alterations may change the pattern or intensity of drug response. In the cardiovascular system, the cardiac output increment required by mild or moderate exercise is successfully provided until at least age 75 (in individuals without obvious cardiac disease), but the increase is the result primarily of increased stroke volume in the elderly and not tachycardia, as in young adults. Average blood pressure goes up with age (in most Western countries), but the incidence of symptomatic orthostatic hypotension also increases markedly. It is thus particularly important to check for orthostatic hypotension on every visit. Similarly, the average 2-hour postprandial blood glucose level increases by about 1 mg/dL for each year of age above 50. Temperature regulation is also impaired, and hypothermia is poorly tolerated by the elderly.

Behavioral & Lifestyle Changes

Major changes in the conditions of daily life accompany the aging process and have an impact on health. Some of these (eg, forgetting to take one’s pills) are the result of cognitive changes associated with vascular or other pathology. One of the most important changes is the loss of a spouse. Others relate to economic stresses associated with greatly reduced income and, frequently, increased expenses due to illness.




The half-lives of many benzodiazepines and barbiturates increase by 50–150% between ages 30 and 70. Much of this change occurs during the decade from 60 to 70. For some of the benzodiazepines, both the parent molecule and its metabolites (produced in the liver) are pharmacologically active (see Chapter 22). The age-related decline in renal function and liver disease, if present, both contribute to the reduction in elimination of these compounds. In addition, an increased volume of distribution has been reported for some of these drugs. Lorazepam and oxazepam may be less affected by these changes than the other benzodiazepines. In addition to these pharmacokinetic factors, it is generally believed that the elderly vary more in their sensitivity to the sedative-hypnotic drugs on a pharmacodynamic basis as well. Among the toxicities of these drugs, ataxia and other stability impairments lead to increased falls and fractures.


The opioid analgesics show variable changes in pharmacokinetics with age. However, the elderly are often markedly more sensitive to the respiratory effects of these agents because of age-related changes in respiratory function. Therefore, this group of drugs should be used with caution until the sensitivity of the particular patient has been evaluated, and the patient should then be dosed appropriately for full effect. Unfortunately, studies show that opioids are consistently underutilized in patients who require strong analgesics for chronic painful conditions such as cancer. There is no justification for underutilization of these drugs, especially in the care of the elderly, and good pain management plans are readily available (see Morrison, 2006; Rabow, 2011).

Antipsychotic & Antidepressant Drugs

The traditional antipsychotic agents (phenothiazines and haloperidol) have been very heavily used (and probably misused) in the management of a variety of psychiatric conditions in the elderly. There is no doubt that they are useful in the management of schizophrenia in old age, and also in the treatment of some symptoms associated with delirium, dementia, agitation, combativeness, and a paranoid syndrome that occurs in some geriatric patients (see Chapter 29). However, they are not fully satisfactory in these geriatric conditions, and dosage should not be increased on the assumption that full control is possible. There is no evidence that these drugs have any beneficial effects in Alzheimer’s dementia, and on theoretical grounds the antimuscarinic effects of the phenothiazines might be expected to worsen memory impairment and intellectual dysfunction (see below).

Much of the apparent improvement in agitated and combative patients may simply reflect the sedative effects of the drugs. When a sedative antipsychotic is desired, a phenothiazine such as thioridazine is appropriate. If sedation is to be avoided, haloperidol or an atypical antipsychotic is more appropriate. Haloperidol has increased extrapyramidal toxicity, however, and should be avoided in patients with preexisting extrapyramidal disease. The phenothiazines, especially older drugs such as chlorpromazine, often induce orthostatic hypotension because of their α-adrenoceptor-blocking effects. They are even more prone to do so in the elderly. Dosage of these drugs should usually be started at a fraction of that used in young adults. The atypical antipsychotic agents (clozapine, olanzapine, quetiapine, risperidone, aripiprazole) do not appear to be significantly superior to the traditional agents although they have fewer autonomic adverse effects. Evidence supporting the benefits of olanzapine is somewhat stronger than that for the other atypical agents.

Lithium is often used in the treatment of mania in the aged. Because it is cleared by the kidneys, dosages must be adjusted appropriately and blood levels monitored. Concurrent use of thiazide diuretics reduces the clearance of lithium and should be accompanied by further reduction in dosage and more frequent measurement of lithium blood levels.

Psychiatric depression is thought to be underdiagnosed and undertreated in the elderly. The suicide rate in the over-65 age group (twice the national average) supports this view. Unfortunately, the apathy, flat affect, and social withdrawal of major depression may be mistaken for senile dementia. Clinical evidence suggests that the elderly are as responsive to antidepressants (of all types) as younger patients but are more likely to experience adverse effects. This factor along with the reduced clearance of some of these drugs underlines the importance of careful dosing and strict attention to the appearance of toxic effects. Some authorities prefer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to tricyclic antidepressants because the SSRIs have fewer autonomic adverse effects. If a tricyclic is to be used, a drug with reduced antimuscarinic effects should be selected, eg, nortriptyline or desipramine (see Table 30–2).

Drugs Used in Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is characterized by progressive memory impairment, dementia, and cognitive dysfunction, and may lead to a completely vegetative state, resulting in massive socioeconomic disruption, and early death. Prevalence increases with age and may be as high as 20% in individuals over 85. The annual cost of dementia in the United States is estimated at $150–215 billion annually. Both familial and sporadic forms have been identified. Early onset of Alzheimer’s disease is associated with several gene defects, including trisomy 21 (chromosome 21), a mutation of the gene for presenilin-1 on chromosome 14, and an abnormal allele, ε4, for the lipid-associated protein, ApoE, on chromosome 19. Unlike the common forms (ApoE ε2 and ε3), the ε4 form strongly correlates with the formation of amyloid β deposits (see below).

Pathologic changes include increased deposits of amyloid beta (Aβ) peptide in the cerebral cortex, which eventually forms extracellular plaques and cerebral vascular lesions, and intra- and interneuronal fibrillary tangles consisting of the tau protein (Figure 60–2). There is a progressive loss of neurons, especially cholinergic neurons, and thinning of the cortex. The loss of cholinergic neurons results in a marked decrease in choline acetyltransferase and other markers of cholinergic activity. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease are often exquisitely sensitive to the central nervous system toxicities of drugs with antimuscarinic effects. Some evidence implicates excess excitation by glutamate as a contributor to neuronal death. In addition, abnormalities of mitochondrial function may contribute to neuronal death.


FIGURE 60–2 Some processes involved in Alzheimer’s disease. From the left: mitochondrial dysfunction, possibly involving glucose utilization; synthesis of protein tau and aggregation in filamentous tangles; synthesis of amyloid beta (Aβ) and secretion into the extracellular space, where it may interfere with synaptic signaling and accumulates in plaques. (Reproduced, with permission, from Roberson ED, Mucke L: 100 years and counting: Prospects for defeating Alzheimer’s disease. Science 2006;314:781. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.)

Many methods of treatment of Alzheimer’s disease have been explored (Table 60–3). Much attention has been focused on the cholinomimetic drugs because of the evidence of loss of cholinergic neurons. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) type B inhibition with selegiline (L-deprenyl) has been suggested to have some beneficial effects. One drug that inhibits N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) glutamate receptors is available (see below), and “ampakines,” substances that facilitate synaptic activity at glutamate AMPA receptors, are under intense study. Some evidence suggests that lipid-lowering statins are beneficial. Rosiglitazone, a PPAR-γ (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma) antidiabetic agent, has also been reported to have beneficial effects in a preliminary study. Unfortunately, this drug may be associated with increased cardiovascular risk and its use has been restricted (see Chapter 41). So-called cerebral vasodilators are ineffective.

TABLE 60–3 Some potential strategies for the prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.


Tacrine (tetrahydroaminoacridine, THA), a long-acting cholinesterase inhibitor and muscarinic modulator, was the first drug shown to have any benefit in Alzheimer’s disease. Because of its hepatic toxicity, tacrine has been replaced in clinical use by newer cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine. These agents are orally active, have adequate penetration into the central nervous system, and are much less toxic than tacrine. Although evidence for the benefit of cholinesterase inhibitors (and memantine; see below) is statistically significant, the amount of benefit is modest and does not prevent the progression of the disease. The cholinesterase inhibitors cause significant adverse effects, including nausea and vomiting, and other peripheral cholinomimetic effects. These drugs should be used with caution in patients receiving other drugs that inhibit cytochrome P450 enzymes (eg, ketoconazole, quinidine; see Chapter 4). Preparations available are listed in Chapter 7.

Excitotoxic activation of glutamate transmission via NMDA receptors has been postulated to contribute to the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Memantine binds to NMDA receptor channels in a use-dependent manner and produces a noncompetitive blockade. Its modest efficacy in Alzheimer’s disease is similar to or smaller than that of the cholinesterase inhibitors. However, this drug may be better tolerated and less toxic than the cholinesterase inhibitors. Combination therapy with both memantine and one of the cholinesterase inhibitors has produced mixed results. Memantine is available as Namenda in 5 and 10 mg oral tablets.

Recent research has focussed on amyloid beta, because the characteristic plaques consist mostly of this peptide. Unfortunately, two anti-amyloid antibodies, solanezumab and bapineuzumab, both failed to improve cognition or slow progression in recent phase 2 clinical trials. Another effort suggests that the accumulation of filamentous tangles of tau protein is a critical component of neuronal damage in Alzheimer’s and several other neurodegenerative conditions. Accumulation of tau appears to be associated with dissociation from microtubules in neurons, which has stimulated interest in drugs that inhibit microtubule disassembly, such as epothilone-D.


Antihypertensive Drugs

Blood pressure, especially systolic pressure, increases with age in Western countries and in most cultures in which salt intake is high. In women, the increase is more marked after age 50. Although sometimes ignored in the past, most clinicians now believe that hypertension should be treated in the elderly.

The basic principles of therapy are not different in the geriatric age group from those described in Chapter 11, but the usual cautions regarding altered pharmacokinetics and blunted compensatory mechanisms apply. Because of its safety, nondrug therapy (weight reduction in the obese and salt restriction) should be encouraged. Thiazides are a reasonable first step in drug therapy. The hypokalemia, hyperglycemia, and hyperuricemia caused by these agents are more relevant in the elderly because of the higher prevalence in these patients of arrhythmias, type 2 diabetes, and gout. Thus, use of low antihypertensive doses—rather than maximum diuretic doses—is important. Calcium channel blockers are effective and safe if titrated to the appropriate response. They are especially useful in patients who also have atherosclerotic angina (see Chapter 12). Beta blockers are potentially hazardous in patients with obstructive airway disease and are considered less useful than calcium channel blockers in older patients unless chronic heart failure is present. Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors are also considered less useful in the elderly unless heart failure or diabetes is present. The most powerful drugs, such as minoxidil, are rarely needed. Every patient receiving antihypertensive drugs should be checked regularly for orthostatic hypotension because of the danger of cerebral ischemia and falls.

Positive Inotropic Agents

Heart failure is a common and particularly lethal disease in the elderly. Fear of this condition is one reason why physicians overuse cardiac glycosides in this age group. The toxic effects of digoxin are particularly dangerous in the geriatric population, since the elderly are more susceptible to arrhythmias. The clearance of digoxin is usually decreased in the older age group, and although the volume of distribution is often decreased as well, the half-life of this drug may be increased by 50% or more. Because the drug is cleared mostly by the kidneys, renal function must be considered in designing a dosage regimen. There is no evidence that there is any increase in pharmacodynamic sensitivity to the therapeutic effects of the cardiac glycosides; in fact, animal studies suggest a possible decrease in therapeutic sensitivity. On the other hand, there is probably an increase in sensitivity to the toxic arrhythmogenic actions. Hypokalemia, hypomagnesemia, hypoxemia (from pulmonary disease), and coronary atherosclerosis all contribute to the high incidence of digitalis-induced arrhythmias in geriatric patients. The less common toxicities of digitalis such as delirium, visual changes, and endocrine abnormalities (see Chapter 13) also occur more often in older than in younger patients.

Antiarrhythmic Agents

The treatment of arrhythmias in the elderly is particularly challenging because of the lack of good hemodynamic reserve, the frequency of electrolyte disturbances, and the high prevalence of significant coronary disease. The clearances of quinidine and procainamide decrease and their half-lives increase with age. Disopyramide should probably be avoided in the geriatric population because its major toxicities—antimuscarinic action, leading to voiding problems in men; and negative inotropic cardiac effects, leading to heart failure—are particularly undesirable in these patients. The clearance of lidocaine appears to be little changed, but the half-life is increased in the elderly. Although this observation implies an increase in the volume of distribution, it has been recommended that the loading dose of this drug be reduced in geriatric patients because of their greater sensitivity to its toxic effects.

Recent evidence indicates that many patients with atrial fibrillation—a very common arrhythmia in the elderly—do as well with simple control of ventricular rate as with conversion to normal sinus rhythm. Measures (such as anticoagulant drugs) should be taken to reduce the risk of thromboembolism in chronic atrial fibrillation.


Several age-related changes contribute to the high incidence of infections in geriatric patients. There appears to be a reduction in host defenses in the elderly, manifested in the increase in both serious infections and cancer. This may reflect an alteration in T-lymphocyte function. In the lungs, a major age and tobacco-dependent decrease in mucociliary clearance significantly increases susceptibility to infection. In the urinary tract, the incidence of serious infection is greatly increased by urinary retention and catheterization in men. Preventive immunizations should be maintained: influenza vaccine should be given annually, tetanus toxoid every 10 years, and pneumococcal and zoster vaccines once.

Since 1940, the antimicrobial drugs have contributed more to the prolongation of life than any other drug group because they can compensate to some extent for this deterioration in natural defenses. The basic principles of therapy of the elderly with these agents are no different from those applicable in younger patients and have been presented in Chapter 51. The major pharmacokinetic changes relate to decreased renal function; because most of the β-lactam, aminoglycoside, and fluoroquinolone antibiotics are excreted by this route, important changes in half-life may be expected. This is particularly important in the case of the aminoglycosides, because they cause concentration- and time-dependent toxicity in the kidney and in other organs. The half-lives of gentamicin, kanamycin, and netilmicin are more than doubled. The increase may be less marked for tobramycin.


Osteoarthritis is a very common disease of the elderly. Rheumatoid arthritis is less exclusively a geriatric problem, but the same drug therapy is usually applicable to both types of disease. The basic principles laid down in Chapter 36and the properties of the anti-inflammatory drugs described there apply fully here.

The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDs) must be used with special care in geriatric patients because they cause toxicities to which the elderly are very susceptible. In the case of aspirin, the most important of these is gastrointestinal irritation and bleeding. In the case of the newer NSAIDs, the most important is renal damage, which may be irreversible. Because they are cleared primarily by the kidneys, these drugs accumulate more rapidly in the geriatric patient and especially in the patient whose renal function is already compromised beyond the average range for his or her age. A vicious circle is easily set up in which cumulation of the NSAID causes more renal damage, which causes more cumulation. There is no evidence that the cyclooxygenase (COX)-2 selective NSAIDs are safer with regard to renal function. Elderly patients receiving high doses of any NSAID should be carefully monitored for changes in renal function.

Corticosteroids are extremely useful in elderly patients who cannot tolerate full doses of NSAIDs. However, they consistently cause a dose- and duration-related increase in osteoporosis, an especially hazardous toxic effect in the elderly. It is not certain whether this drug-induced effect can be reduced by increased calcium and vitamin D intake, but it would be prudent to consider these agents (and bisphosphonates if osteoporosis is already present) and to encourage frequent exercise in any patient taking corticosteroids.


Drugs Used in Glaucoma

Glaucoma is more common in the elderly, but its treatment does not differ from that of glaucoma of earlier onset. Management of glaucoma is discussed in Chapter 10.

Macular Degeneration

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of blindness in the elderly in the developed world. Two forms of advanced AMD are recognized: the neovascular “wet” form, which is associated with intrusion of new blood vessels in the subretinal space, and a more common “dry” form, which is not associated with abnormal vascularization. Although the cause of AMD is not known, smoking is a documented risk factor, and oxidative stress has long been thought to play a role. On this premise, antioxidants have been used to prevent or delay the onset of AMD. Proprietary oral formulations of vitamins C and E, β-carotene, zinc oxide, and cupric oxide are available. Evidence for the efficacy of these antioxidants is modest or absent. Oral drugs in clinical trials include the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, and n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.

In advanced AMD, treatment has been moderately successful but only for the neovascular form. Neovascular AMD can now be treated with laser phototherapy or with antibodies against vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Two antibodies are available: bevacizumab (Avastin, used off-label) and ranibizumab (Lucentis), as well as the oligopeptide pegaptanib (Macugen). The latter two are approved for neovascular AMD. These agents are injected into the vitreous for local effect. Ranibizumab is extremely expensive. Fusion proteins and RNA agents that bind VEGF are under study.


The relation between the number of drugs taken and the incidence of adverse drug reactions has been well documented. In long-term care facilities, in which a high percentage of the population is elderly, the average number of prescriptions per patient varies between 6 and 8. Studies have shown that the percentage of patients with adverse reactions increases from about 10% when a single drug is being taken to nearly 100% when 10 drugs are taken. Thus, it may be expected that about half of patients in long-term care facilities will have recognized or unrecognized reactions at some time. Patients living at home may see several different practitioners for different conditions and accumulate multiple prescriptions for drugs with overlapping actions. It is useful to conduct a “brown bag” analysis in such patients. The brown bag analysis consists of asking the patient to bring to the practitioner a bag containing all the medications, supplements, vitamins, etc, that he or she is currently taking. Some prescriptions will be found to be duplicates, others unnecessary. The total number of medications taken can often be reduced by 30–50%.

The overall incidence of drug reactions in geriatric patients is estimated to be at least twice that in the younger population. Reasons for this high incidence undoubtedly include errors in prescribing on the part of the practitioner and errors in drug usage by the patient. Practitioner errors sometimes occur because the physician does not appreciate the importance of changes in pharmacokinetics with age and age-related diseases. Some errors occur because the practitioner is unaware of incompatible drugs prescribed by other practitioners for the same patient. For example, cimetidine, an H2-blocking drug heavily prescribed (or recommended in its over-the-counter form) to the elderly, causes a much higher incidence of untoward effects (eg, confusion, slurred speech) in the geriatric population than in younger patients. It also inhibits the hepatic metabolism of many drugs, including phenytoin, warfarin, β blockers, and other agents. A patient who has been taking one of the latter agents without untoward effect may develop markedly elevated blood levels and severe toxicity if cimetidine is added to the regimen without adjustment of dosage of the other drugs. Additional examples of drugs that inhibit liver microsomal enzymes and lead to adverse reactions are described in Chapters 4 and 66.

Patient errors may result from nonadherence for reasons described below. In addition, they often result from use of nonprescription drugs taken without the knowledge of the physician. As noted in Chapters 63and 64, many over-the-counter agents and herbal medications contain “hidden ingredients” with potent pharmacologic effects. For example, many antihistamines have significant sedative effects and are inherently more hazardous in patients with impaired cognitive function. Similarly, their antimuscarinic action may precipitate urinary retention in geriatric men or glaucoma in patients with a narrow anterior chamber angle. If the patient is also taking a metabolism inhibitor such as cimetidine, the probability of an adverse reaction is greatly increased. A patient taking an herbal medication containing gingko is more likely to experience bleeding while taking low doses of aspirin.


The quality of life in elderly patients can be greatly improved and life span can be prolonged by the intelligent use of drugs. However, the prescriber must recognize several practical obstacles to compliance.

The expense of drugs can be a major disincentive in patients receiving marginal retirement incomes who are not covered or inadequately covered by health insurance. The prescriber must be aware of the cost of the prescription and of cheaper alternative therapies. For example, the monthly cost of arthritis therapy with newer NSAIDs may exceed $100, whereas that for generic ibuprofen and naproxen, two older but equally effective NSAIDs, about $20.

Nonadherence may result from forgetfulness or confusion, especially if the patient has several prescriptions and different dosing intervals. A survey carried out in 1986 showed that the population over 65 years of age accounted for 32% of drugs prescribed in the USA, although these patients represented only 11–12% of the population at that time. Since the prescriptions are often written by several different practitioners, there is usually no attempt to design “integrated” regimens that use drugs with similar dosing intervals for the conditions being treated. Patients may forget instructions regarding the need to complete a fixed duration of therapy when a course of anti-infective drug is being given. The disappearance of symptoms is often regarded as the best reason to halt drug taking, especially if the prescription was expensive.

Nonadherence may also be deliberate. A decision not to take a drug may be based on prior experience with it. There may be excellent reasons for such “intelligent” noncompliance, and the practitioner should try to elicit them. Such efforts may also improve compliance with alternative drug regimens, because enlisting the patient as a participant in therapeutic decisions increases the motivation to succeed.

Some errors in drug taking are caused by physical disabilities. Arthritis, tremor, and visual problems may all contribute. Liquid medications that are to be measured “by the spoonful” are especially inappropriate for patients with any type of tremor or motor disability. Use of a dosing syringe may be helpful in such cases. Because of decreased production of saliva, older patients often have difficulty swallowing large tablets. “Childproof” containers are often “elder-proof” if the patient has arthritis. Cataracts and macular degeneration occur in a large number of patients over 70. Therefore, labels on prescription bottles should be large enough for the patient with diminished vision to read or should be color-coded if the patient can see but can no longer read. Because of impaired hearing, even carefully delivered instructions regarding drug use may not be understood by the patient; written instructions may be helpful.

Drug therapy has considerable potential for both helpful and harmful effects in the geriatric patient. The balance may be tipped in the right direction by adherence to a few principles:

1.Take a careful drug history. The disease to be treated may be drug-induced, or drugs being taken may lead to interactions with drugs to be prescribed.

2.Prescribe only for a specific and rational indication. Do not prescribe omeprazole for “dyspepsia.” Expert guidelines are published regularly by national organizations and websites such as

3.Define the goal of drug therapy. Then start with small doses and titrate to the response desired. Wait at least three half-lives (adjusted for age) before increasing the dose. If the expected response does not occur at the normal adult dosage, check blood levels. If the expected response does not occur at the appropriate blood level, switch to a different drug.

4.Maintain a high index of suspicion regarding drug reactions and interactions. Know what other drugs the patient is taking, including over-the-counter and botanical (herbal) drugs.

5.Simplify the regimen as much as possible. When multiple drugs are prescribed, try to use drugs that can be taken at the same time of day. Whenever possible, reduce the number of drugs being taken.


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This patient has several conditions that warrant careful treatment. Hypertension is eminently treatable; the steps described in Chapter 11 are appropriate and effective in the elderly as well as in young patients. Patient education is critical in combating his reluctance to take his medications. Alzheimer’s disease may respond temporarily to one of the anticholinesterase agents (donepezil, rivastigmine, galantamine). Alternatively, memantine may be tried. Unfortunately, age-related macular degeneration (the most likely cause of his visual difficulties) is not readily treated, but the “wet” (neovascular) variety may respond well to one of the drugs currently available (bevacizumab, ranibizumab, pegaptanib). However, these therapies are expensive.