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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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"We know that the number of adverse drug events a patient is likely to experience increases as the number of medications they are taking increases," Burns said. "You've got everything from potential interactions between medications to timing issues taking a variety of medications throughout the day."

People who took five or more drugs in the past month tended to be older. Only 10.8 percent of people taking that many drugs were between 18 and 44, while 41.7 percent were between 45 and 64 and 47.5 percent were 65 and older.

Drugs to manage cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease are the most widely used medications among adults, the CDC report found.

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.

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