Prescription drugs may help with conditions such as hypertension and high cholesterol, but taken in incorrect doses, they can do more harm than good. That's why it's crucial for prescription drug users to correctly read warning labels on those orange-colored pharmacy bottles.

However, half of adults 50 and older fail to notice key warning labels on prescription bottles, according to a recent study by researchers at Michigan State and Kansas State Universities.

The startling figure underscores a persistent problem in the pharmaceutical industry. Lacking government regulation, prescription warning labels vary from pharmacy to pharmacy and come in a wide range of sizes, style and colors. Yet, the inconsistent design lends to misreading warnings or overlooking important instructions all together.

"We were originally interested in how the color of the little sticker that they apply at the pharmacy -- it's called the prescription warning label -- impacted the noticeability of those stickers," Laura Bix, an associate professor at Michigan State University's School of Packaging, told The Huffington Post. "The prescription warning labels are not federally regulated. They're regulated at the state level, and they're largely left to the discretion of the pharmacist."

The 32-person study, published last month in PLoS One, compared how two age groups -- adults, 19 to 29, and seniors 50 and older -- viewed five separate warnings on prescription bottle mock-ups. Each participant wore an eye tracker so the researchers could evaluate whether the subject looked at a specific label, how much time they spent on each label and which elements of the vial they focused on.

prescription drugs seniors
In the study, subjects reviewed the five prescription bottles above, each of which carried a different warning label.

Cautionary labels included warnings such as "Do not chew this medication, swallow whole" and "Shake well and keep in the refrigerator."

"People in 50-plus age group were significantly less likely to view those warning labels than their younger counterparts," Bix said. While the color of the warning labels made no difference in attracting the attention of either group, the position on the bottle did: Many younger participants rotated the bottle to view the warning labels, while older ones focused on the large white prescription label, failing to notice the separate warning stickers on the five bottles.

"Older consumers take more prescription medications than younger consumers do, and as a result they're more at risk from the ill effects associated with adverse drug events," Bix said. "So the warnings are particularly relevant to them, yet they're less likely to find these warnings."

More than 30 percent of those 65 and older take 10 medications per day, while the average for all post 50s is four daily pills.

Despite the relatively small sample size, the statistically significant results raise an important issue, and designs should be changed so that people are more likely to view them, Bix noted. "We'd like to make a dent in the number of adverse events that there are each year," she said.

MSU researchers are currently collecting results for a study that evaluates the noticeability of varied label orientation and interactive warnings, such as placing a label across the cap, by age group. The findings are expected to be published within the next year.

EARLIER ON HUFF/POST50: How To Boost Sleep And Reduce Anxiety Without Prescriptions

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  • Get Moving

    Exercising can naturally help you sleep better by raising dopamine levels, which in turn reduce anxiety and depression. Avoid exercising too close to your bed time, however, as this may make it more difficult to fall asleep soon after. Cognitive hypnotherapist <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/17/10-sleep-tips-to-beat-insomnia_n_1209908.html#s617090&title=Exercise_" target="_hplink">Lesley McCall suggests</a> having at least three hours between exercise and sleep in order to give your body ample time to wind down and prepare for rest.

  • Watch What You Eat

    Avoid devouring <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleep/HQ01387" target="_hplink">large meals before bedtime</a>. Along with the discomfort of being stuffed, large meals take the body longer to digest, thus leaving you more tired when you wake. Conversely, going to bed hungry can be just as disruptive. <a href="http://www.oprah.com/health/What-to-Eat-to-Sleep-Better-Nutrition-Advice-from-Dr-Katz" target="_hplink">Dr. David L. Katz</a> recommends fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains for sound slumber as these "tend to produce a slow, steady rise in blood insulin that helps the amino acid tryptophan enter the brain. Tryptophan is used to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps induce sleepiness along with improving your mood".

  • Adjust Room Temperature

    Try adjusting the temperature of the bedroom for a more optimal sleeping environment. According to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/winter-sleep_n_1215136.html#s622068&title=Keeping_The_House" target="_hplink">Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., FAAP</a>, you should aim for somewhere between 68 and 72 degrees. For easier temperature regulation throughout the night, ditch the singular heavy comforter and opt for piling on light layers that can be easily kicked off as needed.

  • Make The Bedroom A Bedroom

    According to <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleep/HQ01387" target="_hplink">The Mayo Clinic</a>, the ideal bedroom should be three things: Cool, dark and quiet. It may be time to invest in earplugs, an eye mask or even heavier curtains to block out extra light and sound. Don't be afraid to give fidgeting pets the boot and avoid eating, watching television or finishing work in the bedroom. Instead, make the space strictly for sleep and sex only.

  • Sign Off

    Don't ruminate. Practice <a href="http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/positive-thinking-stopping-unwanted-thoughts#" target="_hplink">"thought-stopping"</a> where you only allow yourself to worry about a problem during daytime hours. Refrain from checking texts and e-mails (physically banish your cell to a different room if necessary!) before and during your bedtime routine. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/01/17/10-sleep-tips-to-beat-insomnia_n_1209908.html#s617081&title=Do_A_Brain" target="_hplink">McCall suggests doing a "brain dump"</a> before bed, in which you spend 10 minutes writing down what is on your mind. Whether you're making a to-do list or merely scribbling by minute eight, leave everything on the page.

  • Channel Your Inner Yogi

    Relaxing stretching and meditative breathing can help reduce anxiety and leave you more at ease and ready to put your body to rest. Follow a gentle sequence, such as the "night time flow" featured in this video, designed to help prepare the body for a restful slumber by quieting the mind and soothing the nervous system. In the clip, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/yoga-journal-21-day-chall_n_1240556.html" target="_hplink">Jason Crandell</a> reminds "Practicing with a receptive, non-striving tone is essential for relaxation and moving into a state of sleep."

  • Start A Sleep Diary

    Keeping a sleep diary can both help you maintain a consistent sleep schedule and reveal the possible culprit (or culprits) behind your difficulty falling asleep naturally. Create your own sleep diary following <a href="http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/how-to-use-a-sleep-diary" target="_hplink">a general template</a> and use it in conjunction with a visit to your doctor to discuss any questions or concerns you may have.

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