Life, and especially health, seems to come with a series of “Yes, but…” phrases. Running is good for you, but it can be hard on your joints. Chocolate has powerful antioxidants, but also a lot of sugar. Binge watching five seasons of Game of Thrones is fun, but you may want to go outside once in awhile.
The point is, most good things have potentially harmful side effects, and nowhere is this more true than with medication. For older adults, it can save lives, but also heighten risks for other illnesses and accidents. Blood pressure medication, used to treat hypertension and other ailments, has been shown to lead to an increase in dangerous falls for people over 70 by as much as 30-40%.
That doesn’t mean your loved one should avoid taking it. But it does mean that they, you, their doctors, and any other caregivers should decide the best course of action after weighing all options and ramifications, and take care to protect them as much as possible. Making sure you balance all outcomes before beginning a new regime of blood pressure meds should be a priority—a potentially life-saving one.
Understanding the Risks of Blood Pressure Medication
To make it clear, this post in no way suggests that blood pressure medication is bad. The dangers of hypertension are real, and medication may be crucial to your loved one’s well-being. The problem is, it can have potential downsides, the biggest of which is the risk of falling.
The Journal American Medical Association (JAMA) reported on a three-year study involving nearly 5000 subjects over the age of 70, all of whom were suffering from different degrees of hypertension. About 85% of the subjects were given antihypertensive drugs of varying degrees of intensity, based on their needs. 14.6% received no medication.
At the end of the survey, it was found that while there wasn’t a significant increase in the chances of falls overall, there was a very significant increase in falls among people who had already suffered from one in the past. So, while antihypertensive drugs might not be the cause of increased falling, they can heighten or exacerbate the chances of it among older adults already prone to it.
Having multiple chronic conditions was another risk factor which antihypertensive drugs magnified. So while it’s clear that nothing is cut-and-dried, it’s also clear there are numerous factors to consider when your aging loved one is considering taking drugs for hypertension and blood pressure.
Alternative Methods of Treating Hypertension
If already facing multiple chronic conditions, and a history of falling, you may want to consult with your doctor about alternative methods of treating hypertension, or taking these steps along with a reduced medicinal intensity. But please do not think these should be done in place of seeing a doctor or following their advice.
- Yoga: Yoga is wonderful for the mind, and for the body. Learning to relax can help mitigate hypertension.
- Getting a pet: It’s been shown that interacting with a pet, with their unconditional love, can lower blood pressure—and just generally increase joy.
- Better nutrition: Lower sodium is always good, and there are ways to make sure your aging adult doesn’t have to sacrifice taste, which can put an end to diets and lifestyle changes.
- Positive thinking: You can actually improve health on a molecular level by actively reducing stress and negativity.
Again, these are all wonderful ideas, but if faced with hypertension, please consult a doctor. It may turn out that going on antihypertensives is the right course of action. In that case, you need to work to prevent falls.
Preventing Falls by Making Home Safer
If your aging loved one is dealing with the risk factors (multiple chronic conditions, prior history, hypertension medication) that can increase the chance of falling, it’s up to you to make sure their home is as safe as possible. There are many ways to help prevent falls, including:
- Remove hazards from the home: Evaluate potential obstacles and hazards and remove them. Clear out pathways. Make everyday items easier to reach. A good tip is to have someone come over who has never seen your loved one’s living situations before. It’s easy for you to suffer proximity blindness, and not notice potential obstacles simply because you have seen them so many times before.
- Regular exercise: If possible, exercise like swimming, walking, and yoga (again!) can help to strengthen core muscles and improve a sense of balance. The best way to prevent falls is to be able to stop them before they start.
- Better sleep: Fatigue and exhaustion can cloud the mind, limiting a person’s ability to pay attention. This is a huge factor in the increase of falls. Try to establish regular, routine sleeping patterns that boost consistent circadian rhythms, encouraging productive sleep. A fun way to do this is to introduce soothing music.
- Encourage honesty: Older adults fall more often than they report. These “secret falls” go unreported due to shame, self-reliance, fear—or all three. Remind your loved one that you’re there for them, and there’s nothing bad or shameful about falling—and that a fall doesn’t mean they’re no longer able to take care of themselves.
You want your loved one to be able to live independently and to age at home. Falls can make that an unsafe option. That’s why if they need antihypertensive medications, you, as their caregiver, need to make sure that they’re safe in their home. And you should make them aware of alternative (or supplementary) ways to reduce blood pressure, so that you can all have a fully-informed conversation with medical professionals.
Life is about taking the good with the bad. Being a caregiver means understanding the nature of compromise. Balancing the importance of low blood pressure with reducing or minimizing the chances of negative side effects can help your loved one age happier, healthier, and with less fear.
Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.