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Pills shouldn't be stockpiled

Here's what I'm thinking about today — prescription medications.

Until recently, I didn't take any. I'm one of those people who, if my health provider suggested I get a prescription filled, would say, "Are there lifestyle changes (more calcium in my diet, a specific physical activity) that would not necessitate any medication?"

But there's a moment when you run out of lifestyle changes (or are unwilling to make them) or you simply see no other choice "¦ and you opt for a pill.

I've recently started taking one medication (full disclosure — Boniva for osteoporosis). I'm grateful it's available.

But I pay attention to the National Center for Health Statistics indication that the average number of medications ordered at a physician's visit is 2.1. And I pause when I read the Center for an Aging Society (Georgetown University) report suggesting people between the ages of 50 and 64 take an average of 13 medications.

Do you recall hearing this phrase, "chronic diseases are like wolves, they travel in packs?"

All these available medications help manage the multiple chronic conditions that come with age (diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, heart disease and osteoporosis; the list is long). It's both burden and blessing.

In one of the Eastern states, there's an "experiment" under way. Nurses are going into the homes of older adults who are living independently.

These nurses are being allowed to "rummage" through drawers and cupboards. (I know it seems a little intrusive, but read on"¦) to find expired and partially used prescription medications.

They're finding "a huge number" of discarded medications, and they're taking them to the involved health providers to help assess how medications are used, or not.

Let me expand. This has many facets. First of all, prescription medications in accessible places in the homes of grandparents are thought by many to be the leading cause of poisoning in grandchildren — yes, the "leading" cause.

Medications are often prescribed that "didn't work" or are "hard to swallow" and they get shuffled to the side. It's often hard for all of us — elders especially — to discard an expensive prescription medication that's no longer acceptable or appropriate. But medications degrade and effectiveness changes, especially if the bottle in question is in a warm, moist environment (exactly the kind of place you don't want to store your medications).

But discard we must. And you're in charge. Putting the bottle in the trash is not the way; flushing tablets or capsules down the toilet and into the local water supply is not the way either. Most experts say this: take the medications to a pharmacy and ask them to do the disposing for you (Query your pharmacist about this and check out the safety guide at www.mn.poison.org).

Medication jeopardy is a bigger issue than this column has space to address. If you're interested, I'm offering a class on medication management at OSU Extension's "Carnival of Learning" at Scenic Middle School on Saturday, Feb. 23 (one of over 60 different classes offered that day). I'll have a pharmacist with me doing individual medication reviews (Bring a list of your medications and dosages). Call 776-7371 to register. You're in charge.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.