A new study published in the journal Demography suggests that Americans born in 2019 can expect to spend more of their lifetime taking prescription medications than they will married or working. With polypharmacy on the rise, experts warn this overreliance on pills could have serious health implications.
LOS ANGELES – Most Americans are accustomed to taking prescription drugs on a regular basis, whether it’s birth control, heart medication or antidepressants. But a troubling new study suggests our pill-popping habits have reached alarming levels, with the average American now expected to spend more of their lifetime on prescription medications than career-building, relationships or education.
Conducted by sociology and demography professor Jessica Ho of Penn State University, the research combined nationwide prescription drug use data with mortality statistics to estimate the portion of their lives Americans born in 2019 can expect to spend taking prescribed medications.
The results were eye-opening: men were projected to take prescriptions for 37 years on average, making up 48% of their lifespan, while women could expect 47.5 medicated years, equating to 60% of their lives. To put those numbers in perspective, men and women respectively spend around 33 and 38 years working, 32 and 30 years married, and 8 and 9 years getting educated.
“We see that women start taking prescription drugs earlier than men do, and some of that is related to birth control and hormonal contraceptives,” said Ho in a statement about the research. “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.”
Racial Disparities in Medication Use
The study also highlighted disparities in prescription drug use between racial groups. White Americans were projected to spend more years on medications over their lifetime compared to Black and Hispanic people.
Ho attributed these differences mainly to unequal access to healthcare and treatment. Previous research has found racial minorities face more barriers to obtaining prescriptions and are less likely to receive newer, more expensive drugs.
While the reasons are complex, some experts say worse socioeconomic conditions and lack of health insurance among minority groups play a major role. Discrimination within the healthcare system has also been cited as a factor limiting minorities’ access to medications.
More Drugs, More Problems? Dangers of Polypharmacy
In addition to quantifying the years spent on prescriptions, Ho’s research found the number of concurrent medications Americans take has risen sharply over the past couple decades. About 25 years ago, most people took just one prescription drug at a time. Today, it’s equally common to be juggling five or more meds simultaneously.
This trend toward “polypharmacy” could have dangerous repercussions, especially for older patients. The more drugs someone takes, the higher their risk of adverse side effects, interactions and complications. Keeping track of multiple medications is also more challenging, increasing the chance of errors.
Studies suggest 15-20% of elderly patients practice polypharmacy, linked to poor health outcomes including falls, hospitalizations, disability and even death. With the U.S. population aging rapidly, experts warn out-of-control polypharmacy could put more lives at risk.
“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,” said Ho. “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.”
High Costs, Unhealthy Outcomes
Americans spend over $300 billion per year on prescription medications, more per capita than any other country. Ho emphasized her research should not be interpreted as a value judgement on prescription drugs, which have revolutionized treatment for many conditions.
However, our reliance on pharmaceuticals does not appear to be paying off in terms of health outcomes. Despite having the most advanced healthcare system in the world, Americans have lower life expectancies and higher chronic disease rates than people in other wealthy nations that prescription drug use less.
“This paper is not trying to say that use of prescription drugs is good or bad,” clarified Ho. “Obviously, they have made a difference in treating many conditions, but there are growing concerns about how much is too much.”
Moving forward, policymakers and public health experts will have to grapple with ways to optimize prescription drug use amidst an aging population and worsening epidemic of chronic diseases. With lifespans continually extending, will Americans soon spend over half their time on Earth dependent on medication? Only time will tell, but Ho’s study makes clear our affinity for prescription fixes has reached unprecedented levels.