Almost 60 percent of adults take prescription drugs
Nearly three in five American adults take a prescription drug, which is up markedly since 2000 because of much higher use of almost every type of medication, from antidepressants to treatments for high cholesterol and diabetes.
In a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found the prevalence of prescription drug use among people 20 and older had risen to 59 percent in 2012 from 51 percent just a dozen years earlier. During the same period, the percentage of people taking five or more prescription drugs nearly doubled, to 15 percent from 8 percent.
One likely factor driving the increase in prescription drug use: Obesity.
Researchers noted that eight of the 10 most commonly used drugs in the United States are used to treat hypertension, heart failure, diabetes or other elements of the “cardiometabolic syndrome.” In addition, another frequently prescribed drug treats gastroesophageal reflux, a condition that's widespread among people who are overweight or obese.
Elizabeth Kantor, an epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and co-author of the JAMA study, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the data. While prescription drug use is increasing across most drug types, researchers aren't exactly sure why, and the reasons likely vary from drug to drug, she said. New drugs hit the market, others lose their patent protection, and public health officials revise their recommendations. There have been major policy changes, such as the implementation of Medicare Part D in 2006. All those factors can alter prescribing patterns and access to drugs.
“There's so much going on in each area, it's hard to draw concrete conclusions,” Kantor said. “Each drug class stands on its own.”
The country's aging population would seem to be one obvious explanation for the uptick, she noted. After all, people older than 40, and particularly those over 65, take far more medications than younger Americans. Yet after researchers adjusted for age, the trends toward increased prescription use held true.
Kantor and her colleagues based their findings on data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, which involves a sample of about 5,000 people each year who reflect the U.S. population.
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