I’ve mentioned before that when doctors or nurses ask me what prescription drugs I’m taking and I answer “none,” they seem surprised. A couple of you made the same observation in comments. That got me wondering what percent of people, say, over the age of 50 are taking some kind of prescription medication on a regular basis.
It took a little more digging than I expected to find an answer. The first source that popped up in my Google search was a CDC report on what percent of Americans have taken at least one prescription drug in the past 30 days. The answer was nearly half, but that’s a useless bit of data for answering my question. I’m taking a prescription drug right now to treat an infection, but I don’t take one on a regular basis.
The same CDC report also suffered from useless statistical groupings. For example, it grouped the population by age like this:
60 and over
Going from the 20-59 group to the 60 and over group, prescription drug use in the past 30 days jumped from 48% to 88%. Wow … we must really fall apart after we turn 60, right?
No, of course not. Lumping 57-year-olds together with 22-year-olds is ridiculous when it comes to reporting on prescription drug use. The people I know who take prescription drugs on a regular basis started doing so sometime after age 40.
Today, a full 61 percent of adults use at least one drug to treat a chronic health problem, a nearly 15 percent rise since 2001. More than 1 in 4 seniors gulp down at least five medications daily.
An adult, of course, is anyone over the age of 18. That doesn’t narrow it down much. AARP had better figures for people in my age bracket, i.e., adults over the age of 50:
The vast majority of Americans age 50+ (85%) say they have taken a prescription drug in the past five years, and three-fourths (76%) say they are currently taking at least one prescription drug on a regular basis.
So yes, those of who make it past age 50 without taking at least one prescription drug on a regular basis are in the minority, if not exactly unusual. That’s sad. The figures are even more depressing for the over-65 group:
Americans age 65+ (87%) are even more likely to say they take a prescription drug on a regular basis than those between the ages of 50-64 years (67%).
Yee-ikes. Gather up a group of 10 retirees, and the odds are that nine of them are taking some kind of drug every day. I plan to the one who doesn’t.
Those who say they are currently taking prescription drugs regularly say they take on average four different prescriptions drugs daily.
Scratch what I said above. Gather up a group of 10 retirees, and the odds are the most of them are taking several drugs every day.
Overmedicating is a particular problem for seniors, more than half of whom take three or more medications per day. “The drug-drug interactions can be worse than the disease,” says John Morley, director of geriatric medicine at the St. Louis VA Medical Center. And too often, he adds, “doctors seem to suspend common sense” when devising a treatment plan. For example, they prescribe Aricept for Alzheimer’s patients and then treat a frequent side effect, urinary incontinence, with an anticholinergic like Enablex or Ditropan whose side effects include delirium, confusion, and memory loss. A current concern among public health experts is the use of antipsychotics in nursing homes to treat anxiety, confusion, and irritability, all frequently triggered by other medications.
Yup, people are taking drugs to treat the side effects of taking drugs. Here’s one the US News article didn’t mention: nearly 45% of Americans over the age of 60 are on a statin. How many of those people are also on a painkiller to treat muscle and joint pain that their doctors haven’t traced to the statin? I don’t have data on that, but my guess is that it’s rather a lot.
You could make a credible argument that statins are beneficial for one particular group of people: men under the age of 65 who already have heart disease. (And then I’d argue in reply that most of those men could achieve greater benefits with a change in diet.) But there’s no way on God’s Green Earth that 45% of the people over age 60 are benefiting from beating down their cholesterol. Most are wasting money at best, and paying to suffer needless side effects at worst.
Many medications serve an important purpose, as I was reminded this week. If you’ve got a bacterial infection, an antibiotic is a blessing. Some people will require drugs to control high blood pressure, high glucose, pain, seizures, etc. no matter which diet they adopt.
But when nearly nine out of 10 seniors are taking prescription drugs, that’s not a blessing. That’s a medical system treating lipid panels instead of heart disease. That’s a medical system largely treating the effects of sugars, grains and processed seed oils in our diets — not the natural effects of living for more than 65 years.