WASHINGTON -- Americans are cramming their medicine chests ever fuller in the struggle to lower cholesterol, treat depression, reduce inflammation and ease other illnesses.
More than 40 percent of the population is taking at least one prescription drug and one person in every six takes three or more, the government said Thursday. Both figures are up about 5 percentage points in recent years.
"The fact is that we have more drugs available that actually do help people," said Dr. Ellsworth C. Seeley, who teaches medicine at the University of Kentucky. He cited drugs to deal with high blood pressure, cholesterol and help diabetics, among others.
Dennis Shea, a professor at Pennsylvania State University's college of health and human development, found mixed news in the report.
"Certainly, in the 1990s there were lots of advances in being better able to target drugs to conditions," he said. "But there is that danger that people are overmedicating ... taking so many medications that they can interact, make one ineffective or cause harm."
And, he added, "Americans seem to look for that magic pill, don't they?" In many cases the patients pressure physicians: "'Give me the pill, I don't want to change my diet, I don't want to exercise.' It is an easy way out but may not be as effective," he said. The benefits of improved diet and exercise can extend beyond any single ailment, he added.
Seeley said the increase may result from some overmedication, but he believes that has sometimes been exaggerated.
Many elderly need several drugs to maintain their standard of living, both agreed.
"And there are drugs that are not lifesaving drugs in that sense -- such as drugs for migraine headaches -- that have certainly improved the quality of life for migraine sufferers," Seeley added.
Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the public interest group Public Citizen suggested the increasingly heavy advertising for prescription products is another reason for the growth in drug use.
The annual report on the nation's health found an average of just over 44 percent of all Americans had taken at least one prescription drug, and 16.5 percent took at least three, in 1999-2000, the most recent data available.
Those rates were up from an average use of 39 percent and 12 percent between 1988 and 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Those were the most recent data available.
The report, "Health, United States 2004," presents the latest data collected by CDC, the National Center for Health Statistics and dozens of other federal health agencies, academic and professional health associations, and international health organizations.
While the report is dated 2004, it uses the most recent data available, resulting in findings from several different years on different subjects.
Americans' life expectancy increased to 77.3 years in 2002, a record, and deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke, the three leading killers, are all down 1 percent to 3 percent, the analysis said.
Infant mortality in 2002 was 7.0 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, up from 6.8 in 2001 and the first increase since 1958. The rise was attributed to an increase in deaths in the first 28 days of life, particularly in the first week. There has been an increase in low birthweight babies, the report noted.
The study found spending on health climbed 9.3 percent in 2002 to $1.6 trillion.
The prevalence of obesity in people aged 20 to 74 increased from 47 percent in 1976-80 to 65 percent in 1999-2002, the report said.
Prescription drugs, which make up about one-tenth of the total medical bill, were the fastest growing expenditure. The price of drugs rose 5 percent, but wider use of medicines pushed total expenditures up 15.3 percent in 2002. Drug expenditures have risen at least 15 percent every year since 1998.
The report compared average prescription drug use in 1988-1994 to the average for 1999-2000 and said prescription drug use was increasing among people of all ages, and that use increases with age.
Nearly half of all women reported taking at least one prescription drug during the month before being surveyed -- 49 percent -- compared with 39 percent of men.
Usage peaked at 84 percent for people aged 65 and over, with the top rate at 89 percent for black women over 65.
Even for people under age 18, however, nearly one-fourth -- 24.1 percent -- were taking at least one prescription medication. The rate rose to 34.7 percent between age 18 and 44 and for those 45 to 64 it was 62.1 percent.
The report said the percent of adults using antidepressants nearly tripled to 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men aged 18 and over. Other drugs showing dramatic growth were cholesterol-lowering medications and anti-inflammatories.
On the Net:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov
National Center for Health Statistics: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/