Senior citizens, who are at risk for prescription drug overdoses and drug-related deaths, are often neglected and difficult to reach, according to Richard Hurley, a Brigham Young University health professor.

The 12 percent of the population over 65 is the fastest-growing segment of the population in the country, Hurley said, speaking at the World Senior Games in St. George. "They consume 25 to 35 percent of all prescription drugs and an even larger percentage of over-the-counter drugs. Today, the average healthy senior citizen takes 11 prescription drugs in a year."Those supposedly safe drugs include such powerful substances as cardiovascular and pulmonary medications, blood thinners, blood-pressure drugs, antibiotics and diabetes medications.

"They can't all complement each other. There is no such thing as a safe drug."

Hurley has himself experienced the dangers of drug interactions. In 1979, he came down with a sore throat while attending a football game. The infection spread and worsened, so he checked into a hospital, certain that after a few days he could go home.

But it took five months until Hurley was healthy enough to be released from a critical-care center, where he was transferred when his condition continued to deteriorate. "I was paralyzed for a while, and my wife was told on two occasions that I was going to die."

He lost hearing in one ear and has only partial hearing in the other. He suffers extreme sensitivity to light and partial paralysis in his face.

His health problems were caused, he believes, by either a reaction to one drug or an interaction between two drugs he was given.

The unique physical needs and lifestyles of senior citizens place them at high-risk for drug-related problems.

With aging, there is an increase in body fat and a decrease in plasma volume, liver function and kidney function. All are critical factors in drug absorption and storage, he said.

Frequent travel can make senior citizens more vulnerable to adverse reactions from drugs, as they are away from their regular doctor who is aware of their medical history. Often while traveling, seniors have prescriptions filled at pharmacies without access to their drug histories. Other seniors rely on mail-order pharmacies, which rarely note what other drugs their customers are taking, Hurley said.

Some Sunbelt winter visitors and residents rely on frequent trips to Mexico where they can buy almost any drug either with or without a prescription. "They have no idea about the purity of those drugs," Hurley said.

To combat the problem, seniors can start by recognizing and exercising their rights as patients and consumers. "There are certain facts you should know about your medications before you leave the doctor's office or pharmacy," Hurley said.

Patients should discuss appropriate dosages and possible side effects of any new medications and should inform all doctors, including specialists and primary-care physicians about all medications they take.

In addition, seniors may want to study the drugs their doctors prescribe. "People think that doctors are better informed (about drug interactions and side effects) than they really are," Hurley said.

"Doctors simply must become more educated in geriatrics. Seniors are seldom, if ever, used in drug development research, even though the medication under study is targeted toward a senior population."

Hurley also supports more educational campaigns to reach seniors with information on drug interactions and other issues that could improve the quality of their lives.

"There is no network of information, no good avenue for reaching seniors, only occasional piecemeal outlets, like newspapers and magazines," he said.