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US Prescription Drug Use Up, Study Finds; Is There Link to Obesity?

  • Carol Pearson

Americans are taking more prescription medicines than ever before. What's more, an increasing number of Americans are taking more than one drug, mostly to treat diseases related to obesity. These were the findings of a study led by Elizabeth Kantor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Kantor, now at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, found that the increase was particularly notable among adults 65 and up. This is the population most likely to need prescriptions to control heart disease and high blood pressure, but Kantor said age wasn't the only factor behind the increase. The researchers looked at patient data for close to 40,000 people, some as young as 20.

"When we look at drugs taken to control high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, depression, we see increases in all of those drug classes," Kantor said.

Kantor offered no opinion about why prescriptions to control depression have increased, but noted that other studies have shown a link between diabetes, heart disease and depression. The researchers found that one of the most common drugs prescribed is simvastatin, a statin that lowers the risk of stroke and heart attack in people with diabetes and heart disease.

Kantor's team looked at the data from two years of medical records, a decade apart: 1999-2000 and 2011-2012.

Overall, the number of Americans taking prescription drugs increased 9 percent over that decade. Fifty-nine percent of Americans — about three out of every five people — are taking prescription medications for some reason. Those taking more than one medication almost doubled in 10 years. Taking multiple drugs raises the risk of negative drug interaction, such as unexpected side effects.

"When we look at the 10 most commonly used drugs in 2011-2012," Kantor said, "most of these drugs are taken for conditions associated with cardiovascular disease, as well as the factors contributing to cardiovascular disease, such as obesity."

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It did not address whether prescription drug use is increasing around the world, or whether the need for these medications is growing, but the World Health Organization says obesity has more than doubled globally in the past 35 years, and diabetes is considered epidemic in many countries.

WHO says obesity is particularly problematic in urban areas and that diabetes will be the seventh-leading cause of death by 2030.