Better Health: Most Americans on Prescription Drugs

If pills have become a part of your daily routine, whether for high blood pressure, cholesterol or any of a wide spectrum of maladies, you are not alone.

More Americans than ever have taken a prescription drug at least once in the previous month. It may be as high as 60%. New research analyzed the use of a wide variety of prescriptions among those aged 20 and older, including antibiotics, birth control and heart medication. Rates of use hovered around 51% in 1999 and 2000, but jumped to 59% in 2011 and 2012. A higher number of seniors are now using prescription drugs than in 1999-2000, but prescription drug use hasn’t grown much among those ages 20 to 39, the researchers reported. In the 40-to-64 age category, use was up from 57% in 1999-2000 to 65%; among those ages 65 and older, usage increased from 84% to 90%.

Researchers said the significant rise doesn't necessarily represent a troubling trend. While they said it's important to be responsible about the prescribing of medications, the data may suggest health care has become more accessible.

"We want to be treating people who need to be treated. Our use of certain drugs might increase as certain conditions, or access to care improves," Said Elizabeth Kantor, a co-author of the study and epidemiologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, "But at the same time, it's also important to be cautious about it."

Many drugs used to treat obesity-related issues, including hypertension, cholesterol and diabetes saw large upticks in prescriptions. The data also reflects a nearly twofold increase in antidepressant use.

Kantor said she was not surprised by the results. Antidepressants, the researchers note, may be more often prescribed due to "shifting attitudes regarding depression."

Certain classes of drugs may be prescribed more due to the availability of a generic option that would typically cost less than brand-name medicine. And more people are taking five or more drugs at once. In 1999, 8.2% of adults did. In 2011, 15% of adults did. "This is particularly notable among older adults 65 and older," Kantor said. That's 39% of the age group.

More people are also taking antidepressants and proton pump inhibitors, used to treat acid reflux disease. Acid reflux can be related to obesity and poor diet.

One type of prescription drug use fell. Fewer women take hormones to treat the symptoms of menopause, mostly because of studies indicating the hormone pills could raise the risk of breast cancer and other diseases.

Another interesting trend may reflect an aging American population: The percentage of people taking five or more drugs in a single month nearly doubled to 15%.

The Top Prescribed Drugs in America

According to a report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

·         Hydrocodone (combined with acetaminophen) -- 131.2 million prescriptions

·         Generic Zocor (simvastatin), a cholesterol-lowering statin drug -- 94.1 million prescriptions

·         Lisinopril (brand names include Prinivil and Zestril), a blood pressure drug -- 87.4 million prescriptions

·         Generic Synthroid (levothyroxine sodium), synthetic thyroid hormone -- 70.5 million prescriptions

·         Generic Norvasc (amlodipine besylate), an angina/blood pressure drug -- 57.2 million prescriptions

·         Generic Prilosec (omeprazole), an antacid drug -- 53.4 million prescriptions (does not include over-the-counter sales)

·         Azithromycin (brand names include Z-Pak and Zithromax), an antibiotic -- 52.6 million prescriptions

·         Amoxicillin (various brand names), an antibiotic -- 52.3 million prescriptions

·         Generic Glucophage (metformin), a diabetes drug -- 48.3 million prescriptions

·         Hydrochlorothiazide (various brand names), a water pill used to lower blood pressure -- 47.8 million prescriptions.

Many of these drugs are to help prevent us from dying early. However, of course, not dying isn't the same as truly living, and many of these drugs are prescribed for conditions that could be prevented by a healthier lifestyle.

Consider the irony. Here in the U.S., we aggressively peddle foods that propagate illness, and drugs to treat the illness that ensues. Big Food and Big Pharma are the winners — we and our families, the losers.

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