Americans Will Spend Half Their Lives Taking Prescription Drugs, Study Finds

October 23rd, 2023

By John Patterson

Staff Writer for Wake Up World

In an eye-opening revelation, a recent study conducted by Jessica Ho, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, has shed light on a startling reality: Americans born in 2019 are projected to spend a substantial portion of their lives taking prescription drugs. This phenomenon, brought to light in the journal Demography, shows that prescription drug consumption has become a significant part of the American experience, surpassing even major life events such as marriage and education.

The Prescription Drug Predicament

Ho’s research findings unveiled a concerning statistic: American males can anticipate spending approximately 48% of their lives relying on prescription medications. The figure rises significantly to a staggering 60% for American females.

The years that people can expect to spend taking prescription drugs are now higher than they might spend in their first marriage, getting an education, or being in the labor force,” said Ho. “It’s important to recognize the central role that prescription drug use has taken on in our lives.

A Data-Driven Investigation

To reach these startling conclusions, Jessica Ho meticulously analyzed nationally representative surveys conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spanning from 1996 through 2019. These surveys, which collected data every five months from approximately 15,000 households annually, provided a robust dataset offering better recall than surveys conducted just once a year. Additionally, almost 70% of the survey respondents permitted verification of their prescriptions with their pharmacies, enhancing the accuracy of the findings.

Early Onset of Prescription Drug Use

The research indicated that the majority of American men start taking prescription drugs by the age of 40, while women typically begin by the age of 15. On average, a newborn boy in 2019 is expected to take prescription drugs for about 37 years, which accounts for 48% of his life. Conversely, a newborn girl in 2019 can anticipate taking these medications for approximately 47.5 years, equivalent to 60% of her life.

Factors Driving Gender Disparities

Ho identified various factors contributing to the gender disparities in prescription drug use. Women tend to commence prescription drug use earlier, partly due to birth control and hormonal contraceptives. However, a substantial portion of this difference arises from the greater use of psychotherapeutic drugs, painkillers, and other hormone-related medications among women.

“If we consider the difference between men and women, excluding contraceptives would only account for about a third of the difference,” Ho explained. “The remaining two-thirds is primarily driven by the use of other hormone-related drugs, painkillers, and psychotherapeutic drugs used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Medications and Disparities

Men’s prescription drug usage is often associated with statins and other drugs used to manage cardiovascular diseases. However, there are disparities in statin use across different racial and ethnic groups. Non-Hispanic Black men exhibit lower rates of statin use compared to non-Hispanic whites or Hispanics. This raises concerns, as cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders are prevalent among Black men.

The Alarming Rise of Polypharmacy

One of the most concerning findings in the study is the escalating rates of polypharmacy, where individuals take five or more drugs simultaneously. In the mid-1990s, most prescription drug users were on a single medication. However, today, individuals taking prescription medications are equally likely to be taking five or more medications.

This raises alarm bells as the long-term effects of many drugs taken for 40 or 50 years remain largely unknown. Moreover, polypharmacy increases the risk of drug interactions and adverse health outcomes.

Early Trauma

The Implications

The implications of this study are significant, not only for individuals but also for the nation’s healthcare system. The long-term effects of taking medications for such extended periods are largely uncharted territory. It poses questions about the impact on health and well-being.

In terms of healthcare costs, prescription drug expenditures in 2018 reached a staggering $335 billion. Out-of-pocket expenses for prescription medications accounted for 14% of this spending. These costs are projected to rise further, reaching $875 billion, or 15.4% of national health expenditures, by 2026.

The Bigger Picture

There are growing concerns about overreliance on prescription drugs, and the study highlights that rates of prescription drug use in the United States are extraordinarily high, even when compared to other high-income countries.

In an era where health and longevity are paramount, understanding the impact of prolonged prescription drug use is crucial. The research conducted by Jessica Ho serves as a vital wake-up call for both individuals and policymakers to evaluate the role of prescription drugs in American lives.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute on Aging, underscoring its importance in the broader context of health and wellness in the United States.


  1. Jessica Y. Ho. Life Course Patterns of Prescription Drug Use in the United StatesDemography, 2023; DOI: 10.1215/00703370-10965990

About the author:

John Patterson is an avid writer and researcher who delves into the latest scientific research. With an insatiable curiosity, he translates complex concepts into accessible narratives, allowing readers to embark on a journey of discovery. Through his work, John bridges the gap between experts and the public, igniting curiosity and inspiring meaningful conversations about scientific breakthroughs.

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