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Americans have a shocking dependency on prescription drugs

A recent study has shed light on an alarming fact: A significant portion of American lives revolve around the consumption of prescription drugs. 

The research suggests that American males born in 2019 will dedicate approximately 48 percent of their lives to taking prescription drugs, while this percentage jumps to 60 percent for females.

Remarkably, these figures overshadow the amount of time spent on lifelong commitments like marriage, receiving an education, or even engaging in the workforce.

Prescription drug use 

“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,” said Professor Jessica Ho of Penn State, who conducted the research. 

“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.”

Published in the journal Demography, this study paints a picture of a nation heavily reliant on prescription medications. While these medications have undeniably improved the quality of life for many, Ho’s emphasis is on understanding the magnitude of this reliance. 

Focus of the study

To form a holistic view, she analyzed data from nationwide surveys undertaken by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spanning 1996 to 2019. 

These surveys, involving about 15,000 households annually, provide an accurate depiction of prescription drug consumption across America.

Shocking results

The research showed that by the age of 40, a majority of American men are already on prescription drugs. Meanwhile, most American women begin even earlier, by the age of 15. 

“We see that women start taking prescription drugs earlier than men do, and some of that is related to birth control and hormonal contraceptives,” Ho said. 

“But it is also related to greater use of psychotherapeutic drugs and painkillers among women. If we consider the difference between sexes, 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 predominantly use medications to address cardiovascular diseases, particularly statins. However, the usage patterns reveal racial discrepancies, with non-Hispanic black men exhibiting lower statin usage than their white or Hispanic counterparts, despite the higher incidence of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes among them.

Multiple medications 

Polypharmacy, the simultaneous consumption of five or more medications, has also been on the rise. Previously, in the mid-1990s, individuals typically consumed a single prescription drug. 

Now, it’s equally likely for a person to be taking five or more prescription drugs, highlighting the increasing complexity of modern medical regimens.

Possible repercussions 

Not only are there concerns regarding the unknown long-term effects of many medications, but the risk of drug interactions and potential adverse health outcomes due to polypharmacy is also increasing. 

From an economic standpoint, the financial burden is substantial. In 2018, prescription drug expenditures reached $335 billion. By 2026, this figure is projected to leap to $875 billion, which would account for a staggering 15.4% of national health expenditures.

How much is too much?

“This paper is not trying to say that use of prescription drugs is good or bad,” Ho said. “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.”

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