Part of the reason you’re living longer is your physical and social environment — your home, neighborhood, and community — notes the World Health Organization.1 Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and refraining from smoking all contribute to a longer life span as well.
Doctors prescribe medications to their patients to treat illnesses and with the intent to make them feel better. But issues can arise as people — especially older adults — are prescribed multiple medications.2,3
For example, per Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute, three-quarters of people aged 50 to 64 use prescription drugs, as opposed to 91 percent of patients aged 80 and older. The average number of prescriptions filled also increases with age, from 13 for those aged 50 to 64 to 22 for those age 80 and older.2
While polypharmacy (taking five or more medications) can be a problem, there is a potential solution…precision medicine. Also called personalized medicine, it’s the practice of tailoring health care treatment to the unique needs of an individual patient. Personalized medicine can take into account factors like your environment, lifestyle and genetic makeup to create your very own treatment plan. The overall goal is to protect your health by measuring these factors, acting on them, and tailoring treatments to you.4,5,6
“I think the best way to think about precision medicine is to first appreciate that individuals respond differently to different medical interventions,” says Magali Haas, M.D. She’s the chair, CEO, and president of Cohen Veterans Bioscience, a nonprofit brain research organization based in New York City.
“So when we think about precision medicine, what we’re really saying is: Can we tailor a therapy to the individual based on some constellation of things we understand about their condition that’s unique to them?” says Dr. Haas. “The ‘precision’ comes from understanding their unique combination of genetics, lifestyle, environmental factors, and even biomarkers.”
3 ways precision medicine could revolutionize older adult care
Below, find three ways that precision medicine could help revolutionize care for older adults.
Precision medicine can help your prescriber better evaluate your medications — and maybe even eliminate some unnecessary ones.
A critical element of precision medicine is careful, individualized medication management. This can be accomplished through an annual medication review or, if that’s unavailable to you, simply by scheduling an appointment with your clinician to discuss which prescriptions you may not need to be taking anymore. (For example, maybe you were prescribed a drug for a certain illness that you’ve since recovered from.) There are many potential positive outcomes of deprescribing, if safe and necessary, the most important of which is your overall health.7
This type of hypervigilance tends to help older adults the most, because as was noted above, they take the most prescription drugs. Of course, when they actually need to take multiple medications to address their health concerns, polypharmacy isn’t inherently problematic.
Precision medicine unifies your care team — and helps decrease risk factors.
Polypharmacy becomes a problem when “physicians don’t necessarily know the full constellation of medicines that an individual is getting,” says Dr. Haas. “Also, they treat the condition in front of them without knowing about all of the other conditions this person has. You don’t necessarily know the interaction effects among multiple drugs. You don’t know the potential side effects that can be happening in combinations.”
Ideally, a patient’s care team will be working as a unit, rather than treating symptoms in isolation. This requires physicians to try “to understand how to optimize and streamline your medications so that you take as few as you need in order to accomplish the therapeutic goals,” says Dr. Haas. In this way, clinicians could cut down on duplication issues and lower your risk of experiencing a drug-drug interaction.
That means that not only you (or your caregiver) have a running list of all the prescriptions, vitamins, and supplements you may be taking, but also that the clinicians who have prescribed those drugs have access to that list as well.
Having all your doctors on the same page can bring positive results. It delivers “efficiencies in making sure you arrive at the right diagnosis sooner and that you’re treating the right condition at the right time with the right medicine, which is the essence of precision medicine,” says Dr. Haas.
Precision medicine fine-tunes your medication management plan — and personalizes it for optimal results.
Another way precision medicine can ensure each prescription is appropriate for you is by considering your genetic profile. Genetic information gives insight into how your body uniquely absorbs or metabolizes certain medications. Clinicians can then better understand which medications and what dosages are more compatible with your body, which can potentially reduce harmful adverse drug events (ADEs).
If you’re worried that you might experience a gene-drug interaction, ask your doctor if they’re familiar with precision health companies like Genomind, who offer testing and software that can assist them in personalizing your medication regimen. With these tools, your doctor can see likely gene-drug and drug-drug interactions, as well as the effects your diet and lifestyle may have on your treatment in one composite view. Thus, they can personalize your prescription plan. Find out more here.
- Why people are living longer: Ageing and Health (2021)
- Medication use increasing with age: Prescription Drugs
- Info on prescribing multiple medications and definition of polypharmacy: Polypharmacy: Evaluating Risks and Deprescribing (2019)
- Precision or personalized medicine: Precision or Personalized Medicine (2020)
- Background on precision medicine: Precision health: Improving health for each of us and all of us (2020)
- Precision medicine and medication management: Innovative Approaches to Tackle Polypharmacy Challenges at Point-of-Care
- Case study on lower number of prescriptions and decreased risk: Potential utility of precision medicine for older adults with polypharmacy: a case series study (2016)