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Americans can expect to take prescription drugs for at least half their lives


New study finds people will spend more years using prescription drugs than being married or in labor force

bottles of prescription medications ©Rob Byron-stock.adobe.com

©Rob Byron-stock.adobe.com

Americans born in 2019 will take prescription drugs for close to or more than half their lifetimes, according to results of a new study.

The study finds that a girl born in 2019 can expect, on average, to take prescription drugs for about 47.5 years, or 60% of her life, while a boy can expect to do so for approximately 37 years, or 48% of his life. That’s more than they can expect to spend in their first marriage, in the labor force or getting an education, Jessica Ho, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State University and the study’s author, said in an accompanying news release.

Ho based her findings on nationally representative surveys conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1996 and 2019. The surveys include questions regarding prescription drug use.

Ho used mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database to project the lifespans of Americans born in 2019. She combined this information with the survey data to estimate the percent of their lifetimes they could expend to spend taking prescription drugs.

The study found that most women are taking prescription drugs by the time they are 15, and the majority of men are taking them by age 40. Ho says the age difference is partly related to birth control and hormonal contraceptives, and partly to women’s greater use of painkillers and psychotherapeutic drugs for treating conditions such as depression, anxiety and ADHD. Ho attributes the latter to doctors’ tendencies, beginning in the late 1800’s, to prescribe tranquilizers, and more recently Valium and benzodiazepines to women patients.

By contrast, men take more statins and other medications designed to treat cardiovascular disease. But statin use varies by race and ethnicity, with lower rates among non-Hispanic Black men than non-Hispanic Whites or Hispanics. “That’s concerning because we know that cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders are high among Black men,” Ho said. “There’s no reason they should be taking these drugs for fewer years of their lives than men in other racial or ethnic groups.”

The study also sheds light on the rapid increase in polypharmacy, where individuals take five or more drugs simultaneously. In the mid-1990s, most people on prescription medications were taking only one drug, whereas today individuals are equally likely to be taking five or more medications’ Ho said.

Ho said the study is not meant to be critical of prescription medications. “Obviously, they have made a difference in treating many conditions, but there are growing concerns about how much is too much. It’s important to recognize the central role that prescription dreug use has taken in our lives.”

The study, “Life Course Patterns of Prescription Drug Use in the United States,” appears was published in Demography.

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