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Polypharmacy in the elderly: A literature review


  • Maryann M. Fulton RN, MSN, ANP-C,

  • Elizabeth Riley Allen RN, MSN, FNP-C

  • Conflict of Interest Disclosure
    The authors report no conflicts of interest related to the contents of this article.

  • Authors
    Maryann M. Fulton, MSN, ANP-C, and Elizabeth Riley Allen, MSN, FNP-C, graduate nursing program, Beth El College of Nursing and Health Sciences of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

  • Acknowledgments
    The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Jenenne P. Nelson, PhD, CNS, RN, Associate Professor at Beth El College of Nursing and Health Sciences of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for critiquing, editing, and advising the authors during the preparation of this manuscript.

Contact Ms. Fulton by e-mail at



To review the body of literature addressing polypharmacy in individuals aged 60 years and older to (a) determine primary care providers’ definition of polypharmacy, (b) explore how polypharmacy was assessed in primary care, and (c) seek tested interventions that address polypharmacy.

Data sources

A systematic review of electronic bibliographic databases (e.g. EBSCOHost, InfoTrac, OVID, FirstSearch, and FirstSearch Deluxe) utilizing the search terms “polypharmacy,”“polypharmacy and elderly,”“polypharmacy and research,” and “multiple medications” for the period January 1991 to October 2003 was completed. The search was supplemented with online site searches of relevant journals and review of reference lists of each article.


Results of the literature review revealed that polypharmacy continues to be a significant issue and little research has been conducted regarding the methods primary care providers utilize to assess polypharmacy. Also, there is a gap in the literature regarding the interventions implemented by primary care providers to address polypharmacy.

Implications for practice

The following definition of polypharmacy in clinical practice might be more practical: the use of medications that are not clinically indicated. Selecting appropriate limits for numbers of medications may be counterproductive in populations with multiple comorbidities.