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More Americans are using prescription medicines, particularly drugs that treat conditions triggered by obesity. That’s according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that 59 percent of adults in the US used prescription drugs in 2012, up from 51 percent in 1999.

A team led by Elizabeth Kantor, an epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, sifted through survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which regularly polls thousands of Americans about their drug habits, among other health-related behaviors. Here are the highlights:

  • Antidepressant use shot up, from 7 percent to 13 percent over the study period. That doesn’t necessarily mean the nation is getting more depressed, though. Kantor and her colleagues posit that changing attitudes about the biological nature of depression could mean that more people are willing to take brain chemistry-altering pharmaceuticals to address their mental health problems.
  • Women’s use of sex hormones fell from 19 percent to 11 percent over the study period, mainly because fewer women used hormones to treat menopause.
  • Half as many Mexican-Americans use prescription drugs as white, non-Hispanics. The difference — 33 percent vs. 66 percent in 2012 — is not entirely explained by differences in health insurance coverage. One potential reason: the “Hispanic paradox,” the observation that Hispanic people have better health than would be expected based on their socioeconomic status.
  • Nearly twice as many Americans are taking at least five prescription drugs, up from 8 percent in 1999 to 15 percent in 2012.

The authors aren’t sure what’s driving the nation to take more drugs. The 2006 implementation of Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage for seniors may be one factor, they wrote, but it doesn’t explain the uptick in drug use before then, or in younger adults.


Obesity may be a bigger driver. The most commonly used drugs in 2012 include statins, antihypertensives, beta-blockers, diuretics, and other agents used to treat complications triggered by obesity. So the findings “may reflect the growing need for treatment of complications associated with the increase in overweight [individuals] and obesity,” the authors wrote.