More Americans Than Ever Take Prescription Drugs, Study Says

Harvard researchers reported a 50 percent increase within the past decade.

If you regularly take prescription drugs, new research says you’re not alone—far from it. According to a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), 69 percent of American adults took at least one prescription drug in the last 30 days.

This proportion is at an all-time high, the HSPH report says. The study, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed a 50 percent increase in the share of U.S. citizens purchasing prescription medications since 1999. The researchers also found that the number of adults taking five or more medications over the course of one month, known as polypharmacy, increased by 15 percent during that timespan.

The HSPH study evaluated data from the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which documented the health habits of nearly 38,000 Americans over the age of 20. Researchers then compared the medication data in NHANES with prescription rates in 1999 to determine increases in drug activity.

While major increases were observed in almost every drug class, the greatest jumps were seen in antidepressants, muscle relaxants, proton-pump inhibitors, and antihyperlipidemic agents, which help to combat bad cholesterol and prevent heart disease.

While it may seem plausible to attribute our reliance on prescription pills to the country’s growing elderly population, the study found that adults between the ages of 40 and 65 significantly amped up their consumption, as well—by 57 to 65 percent in one decade, the data says. (Those below the age of 40 saw a slightly less drastic increase of 32 to 35 percent.)

In a statement, the study’s authors hypothesized that the change could potentially be tied to growing obesity rates in the U.S., since many prescriptions are used because they fight the side effects of an unhealthy diet, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.