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Prescription Drug Use Continues to Climb in U.S.

CDC report says most common medications are for heart disease and high cholesterol

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In particular, the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs among people 18 to 64 has increased more than sixfold since 1988-1994, due in part to the increased use of statins. Also, nearly 18 percent of adults 18 to 64 took at least one cardiovascular drug during the past month.

The CDC report noted some headway in efforts to combat the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Prescriptions of antibiotics for cold symptoms during routine medical visits declined 39 percent between 1995-1996 and 2009-2010.

But the report also found a tripling of overdose deaths due to prescription narcotics. Painkillers taken among people 15 and older caused 6.6 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2009-2010, compared with 1.9 deaths per 100,000 in 1999-2000.

There has been a fourfold increase in antidepressant use among adults, but Holmes said that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Seeking help for a mental health disorder isn't as stigmatized as it once was, she noted. In addition, companies have introduced more effective antidepressants, and researchers have found that antidepressants also can be used to treat panic and anxiety disorders.

"If antidepressants enable people to function fully in their social roles, that's a good thing," Holmes said.

Interestingly, even though more people are taking prescription medications, the annual growth in spending on drugs has declined. The CDC reported that spending growth slowed from 14.7 percent in 2001 to 2.9 percent in 2011.

Many popular medications have gone off patent, including cholesterol-controlling statin drugs and other medications used to treat high blood pressure or heart disease, Burns said. Increased use of generic forms of these drugs has helped control spending on medication.

However, she noted that a number of targeted medications to treat conditions such as cancer and rheumatoid arthritis are in the development pipeline. These drugs are expensive and could increase prescription spending in the future.

"There are projections that these specialty drugs are going to take up a large portion of the total prescription drug spending in the future," Burns said.

Overall, the new report should give researchers, health professionals, advocates and public officials much to chew over in the months to come, Burns said.

"It was very encouraging to see facts we see in isolation consolidated and highlighted in one place," she said. "I think this will be a very useful resource and a stimulus for continuing the appropriate use of prescription drugs."

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