In Brief

IN BRIEF

December 29, 2008

Older people taking risky mix of drugs, supplements

At least 2 million older Americans are taking a combination of drugs or supplements that can be a risky mix - from blood thinners and cholesterol pills to aspirin and ginkgo capsules - a new study warns.

Among older men, the numbers are particularly alarming - one in 10 are taking potentially harmful combinations, according to the study.

The results aren't always disastrous, but older people are more vulnerable to side effects and drug-to-drug interactions. And patients need to know that just because lots of medicines and supplements don't require prescriptions doesn't mean they're harmless. Nor are some of these safe to take when you're prescribed other medications.

Experts say the take-home advice is to ask about any side effects of prescription drugs, and tell your doctor before taking other medicines.

The report showing just how many older people are using risky combinations comes from a study of nearly 3,000 interviews with people ages 57 to 85. The research, funded by the National Institutes of Health and University of Chicago, appeared last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Associated Press

Vitamins and mineral supplements not helpful

They were some of the most promising medicines of the 1990s - wonder pills that appeared to fight cancer, heart disease and other ailments.

Laboratory tests and initial studies in people suggested that lowly vitamins could play a crucial role in preventing some of the most intractable illnesses, especially in an aging population. The National Institutes of Health gave them the same treatment as top-notch pharmaceutical drugs, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in elaborate clinical trials designed to quantify their disease-fighting abilities.

Now the results from those trials are rolling in, and nearly all of them fail to show any benefit from taking vitamins and minerals.

This month, two long-term trials involving more than 50,000 participants offered fresh evidence that vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium supplements don't reduce the risk of prostate, colorectal, lung, bladder or pancreatic cancer. Other recent studies have found that over-the-counter vitamins and minerals offered no help in fighting other cancers, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

Research has even suggested that, in some circumstances, vitamin and mineral supplements can be unsafe.

Some physicians now advise their patients not to bother with taking the pills and to rely instead on a healthy diet to provide needed vitamins and minerals.

Researchers have identified several reasons why vitamins don't lend themselves to randomized controlled trials. Chief among them is that there is no true placebo group when it comes to vitamins and minerals because everyone gets some in their diet.

Los Angeles Times

Current common flu bug resistant to Tamiflu

The medical arsenal against the flu just got weaker. Government health officials say that a leading flu medicine, Tamiflu, might not work against all cases of the flu this year. The most common flu bug right now is overwhelmingly resistant to Tamiflu, they said.

The alert is "an early heads-up" for doctors. If current trends continue, they may need to change how they treat patients this flu season, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials say they aren't too worried, for several reasons.

First, it's early in the flu season, and it's not clear this strain will dominate through the next several months. Second, not many people take antiviral medications for the flu.

Third, the flu vaccine - the primary weapon against flu - seems well matched against the circulating bugs.

But doctors need to take it seriously, said William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert.

"Each influenza season provides a bit of a surprise, and we got our [surprise] a little early this year," he added.

Associated Press

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