It’s no secret that Americans take a lot of prescription drugs. But a new study published in the journal Demography helps put that idea into context. According to the research, American children born in 2019 will spend half of their lives taking prescription medications—more time than many will spend getting an education, being married, or participating in the labor force.
The analysis, carried out by Jessica Ho, PhD, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State University, used information collected from nationally representative surveys regarding prescription drug use conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from 1996 through 2019. The surveys included information from approximately 15,000 households chosen annually and collected data every five months. In addition, nearly 70 percent of survey respondents allowed the AHRQ and CDC to verify their prescriptions with their pharmacies, affording the surveys higher levels of accuracy than self-reporting alone.
Ho used mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database to estimate how long Americans born in 2019 could expect to live and then combined this information with the survey data to estimate the percent of their lifetimes they could expect to spend taking prescription medications.
She found that the majority of American men are taking prescription drugs by age 40, while most American women are taking prescription drugs by age 15. On average, a newborn boy in 2019 could expect to take prescription drugs for approximately 37 years, or 48 percent of his life. A newborn girl in 2019 could expect to take them for approximately 47.5 years, or 60 percent 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,” 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, on the other hand, tend to take more statins and other medications to treat cardiovascular disease.
Ho’s analysis also showed that rates of polypharmacy—when an individual takes five or more prescription drugs at the same time—have risen to alarming levels. In the mid-1990s, most people taking prescription medications were on one drug. Today, individuals taking prescription medications are equally likely to be taking five or more medications, according to Ho.
The findings have implications not only for Americans’ health but also their wallets. Many of the drugs that people can expect to take for 40 or 50 years have only been on the market for the past five decades, so their long-term effects on the body are still unknown, Ho said. Further, polypharmacy puts the individual at greater risk for drug interactions and adverse health outcomes.
As for the cost, prescription drug expenditures hit $335 billion in 2018. Out-of-pocket expenditures on prescription medications account for 14 percent of drug spending, and prescription drug spending is projected to hit $875 billion, or 15.4 percent of national health expenditures, by 2026.
“This paper is not trying to say that use of prescription drugs is good or bad,” said Ho. “Obviously, they have made a difference in treating many conditions. But there are growing concerns about how much is too much.”