Americans Can Expect to Spend Half Their Lives Taking a Prescription Drug

Americans born in recent years can likely count on taking prescription drugs for about half their life, according to new research.

For males born in 2019, it’s about 48% of their lives. For women, it’s 60% of their lifetime, the study found.

“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,” said Jessica Ho, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State University.

“It’s important to recognize the central role that prescription drug use has taken on in our lives,” Ho added in a university news release.

Ho studied this using surveys from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1996 through 2019. The surveys included information from approximately 15,000 households chosen annually. Information is collected every five months.

Nearly 70% of survey respondents allowed the AHRQ and CDC to verify their prescriptions with their pharmacies, which increased accuracy.

Ho also used death data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics and the Human Mortality Database to estimate how long Americans born in 2019 could expect to live.

She found that the majority of American men are taking prescription drugs by age 40. Most American women start by age 15.

A newborn boy in 2019 could expect to take prescription drugs for about 37 years, while a girl would take them for about 47.5 years.

“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 [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder],” she added.

For men, more common medications include statins and heart disease drugs, but this varies by race. Black men have lower rates of statin use than white or Hispanic men.

“That’s concerning because we know that cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders are really high among Black men,” Ho said.

Rates of polypharmacy — taking five or more prescription drugs at once — are at high levels. While most people taking prescriptions were on only one medication in the mid-1990s, people are now equally likely to be taking five or more.

Long-term effects of newer drugs aren’t known, Ho noted. And polypharmacy puts you at greater risk for drug interactions, side effects and poor outcomes, she said.

This prescription drug use also affects health care costs, which hit $335 billion in 2018 in the United States. Spending is projected to hit $875 billion by 2026. About 14% of prescription drug spending is in out-of-pocket costs, according to the report.

“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 U.S. National Institutes of Health provided funding for this work. The findings were published Oct. 1 in Demography.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more on safely taking medications.

SOURCE: Penn State, news release, Oct. 12, 2023