We are told drugs taken to regulate blood pressure, lower high cholesterol and reduce stomach acid are lifesaving. Seniors use them at an astonishing rate. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2008, 90 percent of Americans age 65 and older were on at least one prescription drug, 65 percent were on three or more and 36.7 percent were on five or more. These numbers continue to climb.

But let’s face it: Any benefit we get from these medicines always comes at a price. Because they work by interfering with normal body function, the value of taking the drug often is offset by one or more side effects. And the drugs themselves may interact in ways we do not fully understand. Drug reactions are increasingly common and even deadly; the Federal Drug Administration estimates that prescription drug use is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Prescribed drugs cause at least 100,000 deaths and 2 million serious reactions yearly. This is more deaths than AIDS, diabetes and car crashes. I see it all too often in my practice — a patient is prescribed a new medication by his doctor, and some time later, the patient develops another serious condition that is a side effect of the first drug. That problem is then treated with yet another prescription. This is called the “prescribing cascade” and often ends up with the patient taking five or more medications at the same time.

The end result of taking so many medications is often lack of energy, confusion and dementia, poor balance, poor digestion and generally not feeling well. This leads to a downward spiral for the patient.

According to the website for the American Society of Consulting Pharmacists, “Any new symptom in an older adult should be considered a drug side effect until proven otherwise.”

I have used this advice with great benefit for my patients. Whenever they have a new health problem, I look to their medications first and often find the cause there.

So often I hear from patients that their health improves, sometimes dramatically, when they reduce their medication load. Unfortunately medical providers are trained to put their patients on medications instead of take them off, and today’s standards of care lean toward more drugs, not fewer. But there is increasing awareness of the problem, and more medical providers are willing to work with patients to reduce the number of prescriptions they are taking.

Some patients are able to replace their medicines with natural treatments. There are wellness options to lower blood pressure, ease pain and even lower cholesterol. The difficulty is in deciding which medicines are essential and which are not. Some prescribed drugs can be discontinued quickly without harming the patient; others must be slowly phased out. This is a process that needs to be monitored by a medical provider, preferably the one who prescribed the medicines in the first place.

If it is important to you to reduce your medication load but your doctor is resistant, I would suggest finding a doctor who is willing to work with you on this issue. It can have a dramatic effect on your health.

Of course, the best way to avoid this problem is to keep your wellness up, with a healthy lifestyle. And when you do get sick, if the problem is not an emergency, try addressing your problem with natural wellness-based care; this will not lead to a downward spiral, but for most patients actually allows them to improve their health over time.

The whole concept of using drugs to prevent a future disease is losing steam. Patients have been taking these drugs for many years, as well as multiple medications at the same time. They are starting to show side effects that did not appear in the original drug trials, which typically last only a few years and do not include patients already on several medications. When needed, these medicines may be lifesaving, but I see too many patients where their biggest health problem is the medications themselves instead of the diseases they are meant to control.

Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at noonanchiropractic@gmail.com.