United States of Medication: What Our 10 Most Common Prescription Drugs Reveal About America's Health

Do you hear that?

It’s the rattling of billions of prescription pill bottles across the US.

We’re more medicated than ever. Americans filled over four billion prescriptions in 2015. Between 1999 and 2012, prescription drug use rose from 51 to 59 percent. Some prescriptions — like ones that treat high blood pressure or lower cholesterol — saw major increases in use. Some demographics, such as middle-aged and older Americans saw major increases in prescription medications too.

But with overall prescription drug use on the rise, what does it mean for our national health? And what do our most common prescription drugs reveal about our nation’s health?

The Most Common Prescription Drugs and What They Reveal About America's Health Infographic

The introduction for this article is followed by an infographic titled: “United States of Medication: What Our 10 Most Common Prescription Drugs Reveal About America’s Health.”

The infographic is introduced by a paragraph: “Americans are taking more prescription drugs than ever (a claim backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Health Report, 2015 http://www.cdc.gov). Prescription pain medications may dominate the headlines, but what are truly the top prescribed drugs in the US – and what are they taken for? You may be surprised by what they reveal about the state of our nation’s health and wellbeing.”

The first set of images follows a headline of “The Top 10 most commonly prescribed drugs” (as reported in Medicine Use and Shifting Costs of Healthcare: A Review of the Use of Medicines in the U.S. in 2013 by IMS Health http://222.imshealth.com/en).

This list includes the following:

Levothyroxine, AKA Synthroid, Levoxyl
Lisinopril, AKA Zestril, Prinivil
Atorvastatin, AKA Lipitor
Metformin, AKA Glucophage, Glumetza
Simvastatin, AKA Zocor
Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen, AKA OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin
Metoprolol, AKA Lopressor, Metoprolol Tartrate
Amlodipine, AKA Norvasc
Omeprazole, AKA Prilosec
Albuterol, AKA ProAir HFA, Proventil HFA
(This information is also linked to Drugs.com, General prescription drug information, 2016 https://www.drugs.com)

Below this, above a line drawing outline of a human body, we have the question “What do these drugs do?” (The information that follows comes from the US National Library of Medicine, MedLine Plus, 2016 https://www.nlm.nih.gov)

Accompanying an arrow pointing to the brain, we have Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen, with the explanations of “Pain reliever; interferes with pain signals in the brain.”

Levothyroxine, which is indicated to treat thyroid disorders, provides more thyroid hormone when thyroid levels are low. (One woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime, according to the American Thyroid Association, General Information, 2016 http://www.thyroid.org)

Moving down to the lungs, we have Albuterol, a bronchodilator for asthma or COPD, which relaxes muscles in airways to increase airflow to the lungs. (According to Asthma in the US from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2011, one in 12 people had asthma. http://www.cdc.gov)
As we look at the blood vessels, we find Amlodipine, which treats high blood pressure by preventing calcium from entering blood vessel and heart cells and widening blood vessels.

Also treating high blood pressure, we have Metoprolol, which slows the heartbeat and lessens its force, relaxing blood vessels. (One out of every three adults has high blood pressure, according to the 2015 report High Blood Pressure Facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov)

Our final high blood pressure medication is Lisinopril, which is an ACE inhibitor that treats high blood pressure by widening blood vessels to allow blood to flow more freely.

Within the stomach, we see Omeprazole, an acid reflux medication that decreases the amount of acid in the stomach. (Two in five Americans experience heartburn at least once each month, according to What is GERD? from the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders, 2016 http://aboutgerd.org)

Related to digestion, we have the oral diabetes medicine Metformin, which controls blood sugar levels in patients with type 2 diabetes.

As we look to treat high cholesterol, we move to Atorvastatin and Simvastatin, which both treat high cholesterol by lowering the levels of bad cholesterol and increasing the levels of good cholesterol in the body. (Almost one third – 31.7% – of US adults have high levels of bad cholesterol, according to the 2015 High Cholesterol Facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

This breakdown is followed by the question: “But… why are they so common?”

On the left, we’re shown a bar graph titled “Prescription drug use overall is on the rise,” which uses statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Health Report, 2015 (http://www.cdc.gov).

In this chart, we see that – for every age group, prescription drug use has gone up since 1999. The lower age groups (under 18, 18 to 44, and even 45 to 64), have risen from one to five percentage points in that time, while prescription use for those age 65 and older has risen the most, to at least 90% in the final chart.

To the right of this chart, we’re given the following statistics, introduced by a headline explaining that “Some are increasing at an alarming rate.”

Prescription opioids have escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013, according to America’s Addiction to Opioids, a 2014 report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (https://www.drugabuse.gov).

The diabetes rate more than doubled between 1994 and 2014, as reported in the 2015 Diabetes Public Health Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov).

The most commonly prescribed drugs in the US treat conditions that are widespread – and these diseases share many common risk factors, including: poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, and excessive drinking.

The final section of the page is prefaced with a thought-provoking question: “So what does this say about the state of America’s health?”

We have the following answers:

Seven out of ten of the top prescription drugs are related to obesity. Is that a coincidence? Absolutely not. Obesity has dramatically increased over time.

In 1962, 14% of the adult population was obese, while in 2010 that number had risen to 42%, according to 2012’s Overweight and Obesity Statistics published by the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (http://www.niddk.nih.gov/Pages/default.aspx).

And – beneath an image of a man sitting on a couch eating from a bag of chips – we’re cautioned that over 82% of adults don’t meet the guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (Physical Activity, 2016 https://www.healthypeople.gov)

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Kristina Ericksen

Kristina is a Digital Writer at Collegis Education where she creates informative content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She is passionate about the power of education and enjoys connecting students to bright futures.

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