ANN ARBOR, Mich.--Busy boomers are more likely than older people to forget to take the pills their doctors prescribe, according to a University of Michigan study that suggests older really is wiser.
"Being too busy, not being old, is what leads people to make mistakes in taking their medications," says Denise C. Park, a psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research who presented her findings this month at the annual meeting of the International Congress of Applied Psychology.
As the population ages, the problem of forgetting to take the pills your doctor ordered--the right number of the right kind at the right times--will affect more and more people who are trying to manage diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, arthritis and other chronic age-related conditions.
According to Park, the conventional view has been that as patients age, their medication adherence rates drop, just when their need to manage complicated medication schedules increases.
With funding from the National Institute on Aging, Park and colleagues carried out a study designed not only to learn who really is most likely to make mistakes, but also what kinds of errors occur and why they're being made.
For eight weeks, the researchers studied 121 men and women between the ages of 34 and 84, all diagnosed with moderately severe rheumatoid arthritis.
"We selected that illness because we expected medication adherence to be very good," says Park. "Taking the medications commonly prescribed leads to real relief from pain, stiffness, and other symptoms. And that gives people a strong motivation to take medications on schedule." Participants in the study took four types of medication, on average.
At the start of the study, researchers tested all the participants to determine their levels of depression and anxiety, and to see what their attitudes were about arthritis and disease in general. They also asked how helpful participants thought it was to take the specific medications they had, and medications in general. Participants also went through a range of tests assessing their memory, recall and other measures of mental functioning.
Park and her colleagues developed the "Busy Life Style Questionnaire," to measure the chaos and unpredictability in the daily lives of participants. Among the items were questions asking how often you have too many things to do each day to get them all done, how often you're so busy that you miss scheduled breaks or rest periods, or stay up later than normal, and how often you follow other regular routines, including eating meals at about the same time each day, or engaging in regular activities at home, such as reading the paper, watching a particular television show, or talking with family members.
After these initial assessments, participants received the prescriptions they were taking in new containers, special bottles with caps containing tiny electronic monitoring chips that recorded exactly when the bottles were opened.
After eight weeks, all the participants turned in the new containers. The information in the bottle-cap chips was downloaded into a computer file and analyzed.
Overall, the researchers found a surprisingly high level of adherence. Nearly 40 percent of participants didn't make a single medication error during the two months studied. Of all the mistakes that were made, more than 98 percent were errors of omission; only 1.2 percent took an extra dose.
Perfect adherence was more common among older than younger adults, Parks found. Fully 47 percent of those over the age of 55 made no mistakes, compared with only 28 percent of those between the ages of 34 and 54.
What usually led to mistakes was being too busy, Park notes. Being slightly unhappy also contributed, combined with the belief that taking the medication as prescribed may make you feel better physically but won't make you feel any better emotionally.
"Being a very busy person is the single biggest risk factor we found," says Park. "Having a life that's overly full leaves little time to attend to health concerns."
For doctors, the implications of the research are clear. "Consider prescribing simpler drug regimens for busy, middle-aged patients, not for older patients," says Park.
For middle-aged people too busy to take care of their health by remembering to take their medications on time, Park suggests using memory aids like written reminders or beeping wristwatches.