Nearly Half of US Population Takes Prescription Drugs

Megan Brooks

May 08, 2019

During 2015-2016, about 46% of the US population used one or more prescription drugs in the past 30 days, down slightly from 48% a decade ago, according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the 2015-2016 period, prescription drug use increased with age, from 18% among children younger than 12 years to 85% among adults 60 and older, Cynthia L. Ogden, PhD, and colleagues report in a data brief published online May 8.

Prescription drug use was lower among males (42%) than females (50%), although the pattern differed by age. Among children up to age 11, prescription drug use was higher among boys (22%) than girls (14%), while among adults aged 20 to 59, prescription drug use was lower among men (38%) than women (56%). There were no significant differences by gender among adolescents aged 12 to 19 or adults aged 60 or over.

Prescription drug use was highest among non-Hispanic whites (50%), followed by non-Hispanic blacks (45%), and lowest among non-Hispanic Asian (33%) and Hispanic individuals (37%).

The most commonly used prescription drugs were bronchodilators for children aged 0 to 11 years (4%), central nervous system stimulants for adolescents aged 12 to 19 (6%), antidepressants for adults aged 20 to 59 (11%), and lipid-lowering drugs for adults aged 60 or over (46%).

Looking at prescription drug use trends over the past decade, the researchers observed an overall decreasing linear trend from 2007-2008 through 2015-2016, from 48% to 46% of the US population, with the most statistically significant trend down among children aged 0 to 11, from 22% to 18%. The authors note, though, that the observed declines in drug use among other age groups were not statistically significant.

"Monitoring the use of prescription drugs may describe aspects of the health of the US population," Ogden and colleagues write in their brief.

"Differences in the most commonly used prescription drug types by age group illustrate differences in the prevalence of health conditions at various stages of life. Changing trends in prescription drug use over time may be influenced by changing disease prevalence and diagnosis, expanded treatment recommendations, and decline in the use of inappropriate or ineffective therapies," they point out.

Data for the report are from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a cross-sectional survey conducted by NCHS designed to monitor the health and nutritional status of the US population.

NCHS. Data Brief 334. Published online May 8, 2019. Full text

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