Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre says harmful reactions to medication are a big issue for seniors. 

A new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information says people aged 65 and older are five times more likely to be hospitalized for adverse drug reactions.

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Dr. Mark Henderson advises seniors to bring their medications to all medical appointments, including walk-in clinics and emergency department visits, so health care professionals can keep track of drugs they are taking. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

And the problem is likely as bad — or worse — in northwestern Ontario, said Dr. Mark Henderson, executive vice-president, Chronic Disease Prevention and Management at the hospital.

"We have a, generally speaking, sicker population than the rest of Ontario for sure," he said.

"And so we have more older people on multiple medications."

Henderson said he advises seniors to bring their medications to all medical appointments, including walk-in clinics and emergency department visits, so health care professionals can keep track of drugs they are taking.

"The patient or a caregiver should try and keep as up-to-date a list as possible and bring the list if you can't bring the pills, whenever you see a health care person."

He noted experienced health-care professionals have long known that seniors are more likely to have adverse drug reactions than the rest of the population, but this study puts a number on it.

'Start low ... go slow'

Part of the reason for the trend is that most medications are processed through the liver and kidneys, and the organs’ function is more likely to be compromised as people age.

The CIHI study says one in 200 seniors (age 65 and older) was hospitalized because of an adverse drug reaction in 2010-2011, compared to one in 1,000 of all other Canadians.

That translates into about 27,000 seniors.

The study also noted that blood thinners, often used to prevent heart attack and stroke, were the drug class most commonly associated with adverse drug reaction hospitalizations. Next were chemotherapy drugs, followed by opioid painkillers.

"There was an adage that I was told as a medical student ... when you're prescribing for older people, you start low and you go slow," Henderson said.

"So by that I mean you would use a dose that a normal average healthy person could take, you might use a quarter of that as a starting dose in an older patient.  And instead of increasing the dose every few days, you might wait several weeks before you go to the next dose level up."