The objective of this review was to assess the benefits and risks of medication withdrawal in older people as documented in published trials of medication withdrawal. This was done by systematic review of the evidence from clinical trials of withdrawal of specific classes of medications in patient populations with a mean age of >or=65 years. We identified all relevant articles published between 1966 and 2007 initially through electronic searches on PubMed and manual searches of review articles. Numerous search terms related to the withdrawal of medication in older people were utilized. Clinical trials identified were reviewed according to predetermined inclusion/exclusion criteria. Only trials that focused on the withdrawal of specific classes of medication were included. Thirty-one published studies (n = 8972 subjects) met the inclusion criteria, including four randomized and placebo-controlled studies (n = 448 subjects) of diuretic withdrawal, nine open-label and prospective observational studies (n = 7188 subjects) of withdrawal of antihypertensives (including diuretics), 16 studies (n = 1184 patients) of withdrawal of sedative, antidepressant, cholinesterase inhibitor and antipsychotic medications, and 1 study each of withdrawal of nitrates and digoxin. These studies were of heterogeneous study design, patient selection criteria and follow-up. Withdrawal of diuretics was maintained in 51-100% of subjects and was unsuccessful primarily when heart failure was present. Adverse effects from medication withdrawal were infrequently encountered. After withdrawal of antihypertensive therapy, many subjects (20-85%) remained normotensive or did not require reinstatement of therapy for between 6 months and 5 years, and there was no increase in mortality. Withdrawal of psychotropic medications was associated with a reduction in falls and improved cognition. In conclusion, there is some clinical trial evidence for the short-term effectiveness and/or lack of significant harm when medication withdrawal is undertaken for antihypertensive, benzodiazepine and psychotropic agents in older people.