A new study has found that an American born in 2019 will spend a larger portion of their life taking prescription drugs than they might in a marriage, working, or in education.
Popping a pill might feel like a normal part of your daily routine, but for how long can you expect to do it? The answer is important on an individual level – prescriptions cost money, after all, not to mention they can be inconvenient – but also has implications for wider public health, and the potential cost of an aging population and increasing disease burden.
To find the answer, Jessica Ho, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, used two main pools of data. The first was data on prescription drug use across the United States as part of the nationally representative Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys, conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1996 and 2019.
Ho combined this with mortality data to estimate how long Americans born in 2019 could expect to live, and what percentage of their life they would be likely to spend taking prescriptions.
The results showed that on average, American men born in 2019 could expect to take prescription medications for 37 years (48 percent) of their lives, whilst for women, the average was 47.5 years (60 percent). Although women typically start taking prescriptions at an earlier age, this may not be the only factor driving the difference.
"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 in a statement. "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.”
The study also found differences between racial and ethnic groups, with white people expected to spend more of their life on prescription drugs than Black or Hispanic people – this could be attributed to differences in healthcare access and treatment, according to Ho.
Polypharmacy, a.k.a. taking five or more drugs at the same time, could be an issue too; around 25 years ago, most Americans were on only one prescription drug, whereas the current study revealed that people today are now just as likely to be taking five or more. Previous research has found that this level of prescription drug-taking could be problematic, particularly in the elderly.
However, Ho cautioned that the message of the study was not to cast prescription drug consumption in a particular light.
"This paper is not trying to say that use of prescription drugs is good or bad," Ho said. "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."
The study is published in Demography.