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Drug Saf. 1999 Mar;20(3):223-30.

Inappropriate use of digoxin in the elderly: how widespread is the problem and how can it be solved?

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  • 1Section of Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Medicine, Department of Cardiology, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Ohio 44195, USA.


Cardiovascular disease is ubiquitous within the elderly population and requires treatment with multiple types of medications. As with any cardiovascular pharmaceutical regimen, the risk versus the benefit of each medication must be strongly considered. This is particularly true where, for various reasons, adverse effects are more often prevalent and pronounced. Over the years, it has been documented that digoxin is a frequently prescribed medication in elderly populations. Although this drug can be beneficial when used in the appropriate setting, recent data would suggest that inappropriate administration of digoxin is common and not without potentially serious consequences. Currently, the use of digoxin can be advocated to control heart failure in atrial fibrillation and when added to ACE inhibitors and diuretics in those patients with symptomatic heart failure related to systolic left ventricular dysfunction. It is likely that the excessive use of digoxin in elderly populations as discussed in this review is perhaps based on the prevalence of diastolic heart failure in the elderly as well as other co-morbid conditions that may mimic heart failure signs and symptoms. Since the elderly appear to be at high risk for digoxin toxicity, the inappropriate use of this medication to treat these conditions could result in significant and unnecessary morbidity. It is proposed that echocardiography should be performed in most elderly patients when congestive heart failure is suspected. This simple diagnostic tool, along with a careful history and medical examination, would hopefully prevent the misinterpretation of confusing clinical findings and would help to identify the patients with normal systolic function or valvular disease such as critical aortic stenosis, where digoxin treatment would not be warranted. If it is necessary to administer digoxin, then the likelihood of significant toxicity can be greatly reduced by using an algorithm to calculate the appropriate dosage, which takes into consideration the patient's gender, bodyweight and creatinine clearance. Although it is probable that the indications for digoxin use to treat congestive heart failure will continue to evolve, at the present time most would recommend using this agent in symptomatic heart failure related to a reduction in left ventricular systolic function or when associated with atrial fibrillation.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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