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Sex differences in multimorbidity and polypharmacy trends: a repeated cross-sectional study of older adults in Ontario, Canada


Background — Multimorbidity is increasing among older adults, but the impact of these recent trends on the extent and complexity of polypharmacy and possible variation by sex remains unknown. We examined sex differences in multimorbidity, polypharmacy (5+ medications) and hyper-polypharmacy (10+ medications) in 2003 vs 2016, and the interactive associations between age, multimorbidity level, and time on polypharmacy measures.

Methods and Findings — We employed a repeated cross-sectional study design with linked health administrative databases for all persons aged ≥66 years eligible for health insurance in Ontario, Canada at the two index dates. Descriptive analyses and multivariable logistic regression models were conducted; models included interaction terms between age, multimorbidity level, and time period to estimate polypharmacy and hyper-polypharmacy probabilities, risk differences and risk ratios for 2016 vs 2003. Multimorbidity, polypharmacy and hyper-polypharmacy increased significantly over the 13 years. At both index dates prevalence estimates for all three were higher in women, but a greater absolute increase in polypharmacy over time was observed in men (6.6% [from 55.7% to 62.3%] vs 0.9% [64.2%-65.1%] for women) though absolute increases in multimorbidity were similar for men and women (6.9% [72.5%-79.4%] vs 6.2% [75.9%-82.1%], respectively). Model findings showed that polypharmacy decreased over time among women aged < 90 years (especially for younger ages and those with fewer conditions), whereas it increased among men at all ages and multimorbidity levels (with larger absolute increases typically at older ages and among those with 4 or fewer conditions).

Conclusions — There are sex and age differences in the impact of increasing chronic disease burden on changes in measures of multiple medication use among older adults. Though the drivers and health consequences of these trends warrant further investigation, the findings support the heterogeneity and complexity in the evolving association between multimorbidity and polypharmacy measures in older populations.



Maxwell CJ, Mondor L, Koné AJP, Hogan DB, Wodchis WP. PLoS One. 2021; 16(4):e0250567. Epub 2021 Apr 26.

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