Prescription Lifeline: Study Predicts Americans to Spend Half Their Lives on Meds

A recent study reveals a startling trend: Americans are projected to spend nearly half their lives relying on prescription medications. This growing dependency raises concerns about long-term health implications and the potential risks of polypharmacy.

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Prescription Lifeline: Study Predicts Americans to Spend Half Their Lives on Meds
4 Min Read October 16th, 2023

More than 60% of U.S. adults currently use prescription drugs, with nearly half having taken a prescribed medication in the past month, according to recent statistics. A concerning new study from Penn State suggests that Americans born in 2019 could spend a notable part of their lives on medication, potentially outpacing years spent in marriage or education.

The Penn State study was led by associate professor of sociology and demography and associate of Penn State's Social Science Research Institute, Jessica Ho. She finds that American males are expected to be on prescription drugs for 48% of their lives. In comparison, the figure rises to 60% for females.

As an American, I'd like to know what medications I'm putting in my body and how long I can expect to take them. The years that people can expect to spend taking prescription drugs are now higher than they might spend in their first marriage, getting an education, or being in the labor force. It's important to recognize the central role that prescription drug use has taken on in our lives.

The research by Dr. Ho reveals that by age 40, most American men are on prescription drugs. In contrast, for women, the age is significantly younger at 15. Based on her findings, a boy born in 2019 is projected to be on prescriptions for around 37 years, about 48% of his life. Meanwhile, a girl from the same year is anticipated to take such medications for nearly 47.5 years, constituting 60% of her lifetime.

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.

Drug Costs Increasing

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), prescription drug expenditures in the United States totaled $603 billion in 2021. This represents an increase of 16% from 2016.

The most current data on prescription drug expenditures in the United States shows that spending continues to rise. In 2023, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that prescription drug spending will reach $670 billion.

The CBO also projects that prescription drug spending will continue to grow at an average rate of 4.6% per year over the next decade. This means that by 2032, prescription drug spending is projected to reach $945 billion.

The increase in prescription drug spending is due to several factors, including:

  • The aging population: Older adults are more likely to use prescription drugs than younger adults.
  • The rising prevalence of chronic diseases: Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer require long-term treatment with prescription drugs.
  • The development of new and more expensive drugs: New drugs are often more expensive than older drugs, even if they are more effective.

The high cost of prescription drugs is a significant concern for many Americans. In fact, a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 1 in 4 Americans has had difficulty affording prescription drugs in the past year.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Study authors note their findings have implications for Americans' health and future health costs. Many of the medications that people take for extended periods have been on the market for only about 50 years, meaning the long-term effects still need to be determined. Dr. Ho emphasizes the dangers of polypharmacy, noting it substantially increases the risk of drug interactions and adverse health outcomes.

Polypharmacy, the concurrent use of multiple medications by a patient, is an escalating concern. While each medication may be justified on its own, the combined effect of several drugs can introduce a web of complex interactions that may compromise patient safety. These interactions can lead to adverse drug reactions, diminished medication adherence due to the complexity of managing numerous drugs, and increased health costs from hospitalizations and treatments for avoidable complications. 

Especially in elderly populations, where the prevalence of polypharmacy is higher, there's a pressing need for regular medication reviews to ensure the benefits of drug combinations outweigh their risks.

In older adults, the issue of polypharmacy is even more pronounced. As seniors often have multiple chronic conditions, they are typically prescribed a range of medications, leading to an increased risk of drug-drug interactions and potential side effects. Furthermore, age-related physiological changes can alter drug absorption, metabolism, and excretion, making older individuals more susceptible to unintended adverse reactions. 

Additionally, cognitive decline and physical limitations might complicate medication management for this demographic. Thus, for older adults, continuous assessment and monitoring of all prescribed medications, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements are crucial to prevent detrimental health outcomes associated with polypharmacy.

This research paper is not trying to say that the use of prescription drugs is good or bad, Professor Ho concludes. 

Obviously, they have made a difference in treating many conditions, but there are growing concerns about how much is too much. There’s a large body of research that shows Americans are less healthy and live shorter lives than our counterparts in other high-income countries. The prescription drug piece is part and parcel of that reality. What we find is, even above and beyond what we might expect to be seeing, the rates of prescription drug use in the United States are extraordinarily high.

Be sure to check the number of medications older family members use and if each is necessary. Also, ensure there are no drug interactions and the dosages are appropriate. If they live in a long-term care facility, don't assume these questions have been asked and answered.

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About the Author

Linda Maxwell is a retired journalist who now focuses on writing about topics that captivate her, such as aging, health, long-term care, and retirement issues. Her aim is to maintain an active and engaged mind, and through her writing, she hopes to help others stay positively engaged with life.

LTC News Contributor Linda Maxwell

Linda Maxwell

Contributor since December 11th, 2017

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