University Park, PA—Over a relatively short time, prescription drugs have become accepted as an integral part of life in the U.S. Approximately 85% of adults aged 60 years and older reported taking at least one prescription drug in the previous month; about 45.8% of all Americans said the same.

A new study examined the question of how important prescription drugs are over the life course. A Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) researcher offers an answer to the question of how many years Americans can now expect to spend taking prescription drugs.

In an article published in Demography, Jessica Y. Ho, PhD, of Penn State’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, and Population Research Institute, responded that an American male born in 2019 will spend approximately 48% of their lives taking prescription drugs, while females will spend 60% of their lives doing that.

“As an American, I’d like to know what medications I’m putting in my body and how long I can expect to take them,” Dr. Ho said. “The years that people can expect to spend taking prescription drugs are now higher than they might spend in their first marriage, getting an education or being in the labor force. It’s important to recognize the central role that prescription drug use has taken on in our lives.”

Nationally representative surveys conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the CDC from 1996 through 2019 were used by Dr. Ho to study prescription drug use across the U.S. Information from approximately 15,000 households chosen annually and collected every 5 months were included in the surveys. Most—almost 70%—of survey respondents allow the AHRQ and CDC to verify their prescriptions with their pharmacies.

Meanwhile, mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database was used to estimate how long Americans born in 2019 could expect to live.

Dr. Ho determined that most American men are taking prescription drugs by age 40 years, while most American women are taking prescription drugs by age 15 years. The study calculated that, on average, a newborn boy in 2019 could expect to take prescription drugs for approximately 37 years, or 48% of his life. A newborn girl in 2019 could expect to take them for approximately 47.5 years, or 60% of her life.

“We see that women start taking prescription drugs earlier than men do, and some of that is related to birth control and hormonal contraceptives,” Dr. Ho said. “But it is also related to greater use of psychotherapeutic drugs and painkillers among women. If we consider the difference between men and women, excluding contraceptives would only account for about a third of the difference. The remaining two-thirds is primarily driven by the use of other hormone-related drugs, painkillers and psychotherapeutic drugs used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and ADHD.”

Men tend to take more statins and other medications to treat cardiovascular disease, according to the report.

Dr. Ho also found that rates of polypharmacy—defined as taking five or more drugs concurrently—are extremely high. In the mid-1990s, most people taking prescription medications were on one drug, she pointed out; now, patients on prescription medications are as likely to be five or more.

Many of the most common drugs have been around for only 40 or 50 years, Dr. Ho noted, so long-term effects are not fully understood. Polypharmacy increases risks because of drug interactions and adverse outcomes, she advised.

Prescription drug expenditures reached $335 billion in 2018, with out-of-pocket expenditures on prescription medications accounting for 14% of drug spending. By 2026, prescription drug spending is projected to hit $875 billion, or 15.4% of national health expenditures, according to the article.

“This paper is not trying to say that use of prescription drugs is good or bad,” Dr. Ho stated. “Obviously, they have made a difference in treating many conditions, but there are growing concerns about how much is too much. There’s a large body of research that shows Americans are less healthy and live shorter lives than our counterparts in other high-income countries. The prescription drug piece is part and parcel of that reality. What we find is, even above and beyond what we might expect to be seeing, the rates of prescription drug use in the United States are extraordinarily high.”

The content contained in this article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.

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