Americans, long considered one of the most medicated peoples in the world, are swallowing more pills than ever, according to a report released on Thursday by the U.S. government.
A total of 44 percent of Americans had taken at least one prescription drug in the prior month when surveyed in 1999 and 2000, compared to 39 percent during the 1988-1994 period, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
One in six adults was taking three or more of these drugs at the end of the decade, compared to about one in 10 in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The popularity of antidepressants, anti-inflammatories and drugs designed to control cholesterol and blood sugar levels helped fuel increased prescription use among all adult age groups, HHS said in its annual report on Americans’ health.
“Americans are taking medicines that lower cholesterol and reduce the threat of heart disease, that help lift people out of debilitating depressions and that keep diabetes in check,” HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said.
In the case of antidepressants, prescription use among adults nearly tripled between the 1988-1994 and 1999-2000 periods. Ten percent of adult women and 4 percent of men now take these drugs.
The report was released amid growing concerns about the safety of prescription drugs in America. Pharmaceutical giant Merck withdrew its blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx from the market in September after a study showed it doubled the risk of heart of heart attack and stroke.
A recent analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, for instance, suggested a link between some antidepressants and suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children and teenagers.
There are also fears in public health circles that the growing tendency of Americans, especially seniors, to have more than one prescription in their medicine cabinet could lead to a surge in drug interactions.
Almost half of those 65 years and older take three or more prescription medicines, according to the HHS report.
The nation’s growing reliance on medications carries a hefty price tag and ranks as the fastest growing part of the $1.6 trillion spent on health care in the United States in 2002. Drug expenditures have risen at least 15 percent each year since 1998.
The federal government also reported on Thursday that life expectancy at birth rose to 77.3 years in 2002 from 77.2 in 2001, while deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke - the three biggest killers - fell between 1 percent and 3 percent.
Revision date: June 18, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD