Can You Avoid Medications with Lifestyle Changes?

Now that you’re getting older, do you have one of those days of the week pill holders that keeps your multitude of prescription drugs sorted? Or are you dreading having to get one as your health changes? There’s no doubt that aging affects your health, and you might have more trips to the doctor, more monitoring of things like your cholesterol and blood pressure, and yes, more drugs that are prescribed to you to keep everything in working order. But, while you should absolutely be keeping on top of your health and following your doctor’s advice, is it always necessary to be taking a mountain of prescription drugs, or is there a way to avoid some medications with lifestyle changes?

Too Many Medications?hundreds of colorful pills falling on top of each other

If you’re watching your prescriptions pile up, you’re certainly not alone: people over 65 make up less than 14% of the U.S. population, but use approximately 40% of the prescription drugs, filling an average of 14 prescriptions a year (or 18 if they’re over 80)! When broken down even further, research shows that the average older adult takes four or more prescription medications each day, with 39% taking 5 or more every day. Each one is meant to treat or manage a condition, and is important, but each also comes with risks and side effects, which can begin to add up. 

So, while you shouldn’t stop taking anything prescribed by your doctor unless you discuss it with them first, you should also be aware that the more medications you take, the greater your chances of side effects and adverse reactions. You definitely want to talk to your doctor about the number of medications you’re taking if you start to experience:

  • Tiredness, sleepiness or decreased alertness
  • Constipation, diarrhea, or incontinence
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Falls and other mobility issues
  • Depression or general lack of interest
  • Weakness
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety or excitability
  • Dizziness
  • Changes in sexual behavior
  • Skin rashes

The Psychological Power of Prescriptions

Adverse reactions are not the only issues with taking medications, though. A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association had some very interesting findings about how older adults react to being put on medication – and no, it wasn’t that they were unhappy with having to take more pills. In fact, being prescribed medications for things like high cholesterol and high blood pressure often meant that those taking the drugs felt like they could let their healthy habits slide because they were on those medications. For example, the people in the study who were prescribed medications for their conditions:

  • tended to gain more weight. In fact, they were 82% more likely to become obese.
  • exercised less. They were 8% more likely to be physically inactive.

Perhaps some of those people were already lax in their lifestyles, but it’s very likely that some of them felt like they could slack off a bit because they were on medications meant to regulate their health. But the truth is, even if you are prescribed medication, a healthy lifestyle is still extremely important to keeping you fighting fit for as long as possible. But could making some positive changes to your lifestyle actually mean needing fewer medications?

Could These Lifestyle Changes Help?

So if you’re trying to cut down on the meds in your life, what do experts say about whether lifestyle changes can eliminate, or at least reduce the need for prescription drugs? The answer is “sometimes,” and it will definitely take a lot of effort on your part, but your doctor might give you 3 months to “clean up your” act if you’re interested in avoiding certain medications for certain conditions. For example: 

Dealing with high cholesterol

greek salad in a bowl
Changing your diet to healthier options can result in lower cholesterol levels.

High LDL, or “bad” cholesterol is a common (and worrying) problem for older adults, and you might be prescribed a statin to lower your number. But some doctors have seen some very encouraging successes in patients who make lifestyle changes. For example, speaking to a dietician can help you look at how your eating patterns might be contributing to your condition, and reducing your intake of red meat and butter, plus adding in more fruits and veggies can make a big difference. Checking out the Mediterranean diet is a great start!

The other key to avoiding medication for high cholesterol? Exercise! Get into the habit of fitting in 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days a week, or 75 minutes of high intensity exercise 3 or 4 days of the week, and you could find yourself ditching the pills at some point in the future.

Lowering your blood sugar

If you’re not diabetic, but your blood sugar is on the high end of normal, you might be able to avoid blood-glucose-lowering drugs with some fairly simple lifestyle changes. Cardio workouts can help lower blood sugar, and you’ll really need to focus on your diet, especially the carbohydrates that you’re consuming. Cut down on bread (try to limit yourself to 2 slices a day), chips, and processed foods, and get your carbs from whole grains, brown rice or whole wheat bread and pasta. Focus more on fruits and veggies and other whole foods, drink plenty of water, and try to balance out the carbs you eat with protein – for example, add peanut butter (with no sugar) to your bread. 

Doing some bone-building

If you’ve got osteopenia, or preosteoporosis (bone density at the low end of normal), there are steps you can take to slow down bone loss, and even build bone. First, make sure you’re getting enough calcium and Vitamin D in your diet, and then get started with some strength training! Traditionally, experts have steered older adults towards low-impact strength and weight training to be on the safe side, but studies are now showing that HiRit (high-intensity resistance and impact training), which involves short bursts of intense activity, is actually better than low-impact training in improving bone mineral density in the spine and hip area in older women. Just be sure to get your doctor’s approval before you start any exercise plan, as well as seek out supervision for anything high intensity. 

Easing your back and joint pain

man swimming in a pool
Instead of depending on medicine for joint and back pain, try swimming instead.

Chronic pain stinks, but turning to long-term use of painkillers can cause some serious issues. For example, high doses or long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Advil can cause bleeding in the intestines, kidney failure, heart attack, ulcers, and stroke. And if you’ve been given a prescription for something even stronger, like opioids, you could experience drowsiness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, addiction, and overdose.

What to try first? Consider yoga, stretching, swimming, tai chi, massage, physical therapy, acupuncture, or heat. 

Soothing chronic heartburn

If you’re constantly feeling the burn, you might be on a regiment of proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs), and this might be totally fine in the short-term to heal your esophagus if you’re suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease. But taking these medications long-term can cause reduced stomach acid, which impairs the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients and medication, and increases the risk of gastrointestinal and other infections. They could even increase the risk of fractures, dementia, heart attack, and kidney disease.

To try to deal with heartburn, and avoid reflux, try eating smaller meals, not lying down right after eating, losing excess weight, avoiding trigger foods (like very acidic or greasy foods), and popping a Tums or some Maalox for occasional discomfort.

Remember, talk to your doctor before you make any changes to your lifestyle or your medications. Remember also that everyone is different, and dramatic changes to your lifestyle could make a huge difference in your health and your need for medications – or you might find that you still need all of your prescriptions. But even if you don’t get to the goal of cutting down on your daily pills, making these changes will still be beneficial – and who knows? You might end up needing fewer medications further down the road. Be well!

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