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Prescription Drugs & Seniors: Post 50s Overlook Key Warning Labels, Study Finds

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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.

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