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“You Doctors These Days Just Want Us To Go off and Die …”

A recent case taught me a lot about how people perceive their medicines.

I was trying to help a 92-year-old man get off some of his medicine. I can’t go into the details, but suffice to say, there was much opportunity to trim a long list of drugs, many of which were threatening his existence and impairing his quality of life.

As I was discussing stopping many of the meds, the patient said (with a quite sincere tone):

“You doctors these days just want us old people to go off and die.”

That was a zinger, a real punch in the gut. I was trying to do the opposite–allow him to live a longer and better life–but the patient perceived me as a mini-death panel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this case. Why was this man “attached” to his meds? Why had he associated his longevity with chemicals that now threatened his existence?

The answer, I believe, is a knowledge gap. He, like many people, doctors included, fell into the trap of association and causation. He associated his health with his medicines; he overestimated their benefits. He thought the pills were keeping him alive. They were not. He lived despite his medicines.

What I tried to explain to this patient was that benefits from medicines do not continue indefinitely. Things change in the elderly, and, what is for younger patients may not be in the aged.

Take the case of preventing stroke in the elderly. Simple drugs, such as high blood pressure medicines and statins, may no longer offer a net benefit to the patient over the age of 80. Really. It is true.

Let me tell you about a recent commentary in the journal Evidence Based Medicine (from BMJ).

Dr Kit Byatt is a doctor in the UK who specializes in Geriatric Medicine. He wrote this refreshingly concise summaryoutlining four reasons why the medical community should reconsider its overenthusiastic views of stroke reduction in patients over the age of 80. In the title, Dr. Byatt asks whether we are being disingenuous to ourselves and to our elderly patients.

The answer is yes.

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