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The study relied on data from in-person interviews with 2,976 adults questioned about which medications they routinely used. The nationally representative survey was done between June 2005 and March 2006, and results were extrapolated to the general population.
The researchers assessed how many people routinely used at least two medications of any type known to have dangerous or even fatal interactions. The number totaled at least one in 25, corresponding to 2.2 million nationwide.
Those interviewed weren't asked if they'd ever had a bad reaction from taking those combinations. And the study didn't assess whether patients were taking medications inappropriately.
Dr. Jerry Gurwitz, chief of the geriatric medicine division at University of Massachusetts Medical School, said taking multiple medications, despite possible bad interactions, isn't necessarily a bad idea as long as patients are in close contact with their doctor.
"There are definitely many instances where if they're monitored carefully and there's good reason for using them, that they could be used safely," said Gurwitz, who wasn't involved in the study.
Prescription drugs were the most commonly used and nearly one-third used at least five prescription drugs.
Michael Cohen, a pharmacist and president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, called the study an important snapshot of medication use in older Americans. But as someone who takes at least five medications himself, Cohen said the widespread prevalence isn't surprising.
Cohen said his group recently launched a new Web site, http://www.consumermedsafety.org/ that will allow consumers to enter names of their medications to check for any potentially dangerous interactions.
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