University of Massachusetts Amherst

It's MORE Than A Meal


Special Nutrition Needs of Older Adults

medicines & older adults

Older adults consume a high proportion of prescription and nonprescription medicines compared to the rest of the population. Compared to younger adults, they are more likely to experience adverse effects of medicines. This may be due to interactions between medicines, interactions between foods and medicines, or age-related changes that affect the way their bodies use medicines.

Common Side Effects

At times, it may be hard to tell whether a symptom is due to disease or is a side effect of one or more medicines prescribed. Common side effects may include:

  • Upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Decreased appetite
  • Mood changes
  • Skin rashes

The Risk of Overmedication

Older adults are sometimes at risk for being overmedicated. Risk factors include:

  • Increased age
  • Female gender
  • A history of adverse drug reactions
  • The use of multiple medicines, especially if prescribed by more than one doctor or if prescriptions are filled at more than one pharmacy.
  • Failure to follow prescriptions properly.
  • Reduced blood flow and less efficient kidneys, which may allow medicines to remain in the body for a longer time.

To reduce the risk of overmedication, older adults should take medicines only as prescribed. They or their caregivers should keep all physicians and pharmacists informed of all medicines (over-the-counter and prescription) that the older adult is taking.

Food/Medicine Interactions

Medicines can potentially affect a person’s nutritional status.

  • They can affect appetite or alter how foods taste or smell.
  • Some medicines can cause nausea or vomiting.
  • Side effects of some medicines can interfere with food intake. Examples are dizziness, sleepiness, confusion, shaking, or agitation.
  • Medicines can change the way the body absorbs or uses nutrients.

Foods, in turn, can affect the way that medicines work.

  • Some foods can reduce, delay, or increase the absorption of medicines.
  • Some medicines are better absorbed on an empty stomach. Others are better absorbed with a meal.
  • Some foods can interact with medicines. For example, grapefruit juice can increase the potency of certain medicines.
  • Some foods can change the amount of acid in urine, which can affect the rate at which the body eliminates medicines.

Reducing the Risk of Adverse Effects

To reduce the risk of adverse effects from medicines, older adults or their caregivers should communicate with doctors and pharmacists. They should inform them about all the prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamin-mineral supplements, or herbal supplements that the older adult is taking.

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Developed for the Massachusetts Department of Education Child and Adult Care Food Program by the University of Massachusetts Extension Nutrition Education Program. Permission is hereby granted by the Massachusetts Department of Education to copy any or all parts of this document for non-commercial educational purposes. The Massachusetts Department of Education, an Affirmative Action employer, is committed to ensuring that all of its programs and facilities are accessible to all members of the public. We do not discriminate on the basis of age, color, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.