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Americans taking too many prescription medications: What you can do to reduce the amount you take

Prescription Drugs and Water GlassAmericans are taking more prescription pills than ever before – more than people in any other country. But Consumer Reports in an analysis warns that all those pills may not be necessary and might do more harm than good.

More than half of Americans now regularly take a prescription medication – four drugs, on average – according to a Consumer Reports survey of 1,947 adults. Many in that group also take over-the-counter drugs in addition such as vitamins and other dietary supplements.

Fifty-three percent of those who take prescription drugs get them from more than one healthcare provider, which increases the risk of adverse drug effects. And 35 percent of those taking prescription drugs say a healthcare provider has never reviewed their medicine to see if they can stop any of them.

Americans often rush, or get rushed, into taking medications too quickly. For example, doctors sometimes prescribe medications for common problems such as insomnia or heartburn without suggesting lifestyle changes first. Or, they diagnose the “pre-disease” state of a condition – for example, mild bone loss or slightly elevated blood pressure –and immediately start a drug regimen instead of starting with lifestyle measures.

For its report, Consumer Reports reviewed the medical literature and offers advice on how to work with doctors and pharmacists to analyze an individual’s drug regimen. It reviewed drug lists submitted by 20 Consumer Reports readers to see whether the organization could find problems and did, alerting those readers of the potential risks. It also dispatched 10 secret shoppers to 45 pharmacies across the U.S. to see how well pharmacists could quickly identify potentially problematic drug interactions.

For details, see the September issue of Consumer Reports, visit, or get a copy of the magazine at a local library.

“We can see that when consumers ask if they can stop taking at least one of their medications, in the majority of cases, their doctors agree,” said Ellen Kunes, health and food content development team leader for Consumer Reports.

12 times to try lifestyle changes first

Consumer Reports identifies 12 situations where people can try lifestyle changes to address symptoms without the possible side effects of medication. They include: ADHD, back and joint pain, dementia, mild depression, heartburn, insomnia, low testosterone, osteopenia, overactive bladder, prediabetes, prehypertension, and obesity.

The number of prescriptions filled by Americans each year, for adults and children, has soared by 85 percent over two decades – from 2.4 billion in 1997 to 4.5 billion in 2016, according to the heath research firm Quintile IMS. In the same time period, the U.S. population increased by just 21 percent.

Much of that medication is lifesaving or at least life-improving, but a lot isn’t, Kunes said, adding the amount of harm stemming from inappropriate prescription medication is staggering. Almost 1.3 million people went to U.S. emergency rooms due to adverse drug effects in 2014, and about 124,000 people died from those events, according to estimates based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

Forty-nine percent of people who regularly take prescription medication asked their prescribers whether they could stop taking a drug, the Consumer Reports’ survey found. Seventy-one percent of them successfully eliminated at least one medication.

Consumer Reports’ article includes a three-step plan to take more control of your medications, advice on when and how you need a “brown bag” review of your medications from a doctor or pharmacist, and what older adults need to know about drug risks.

Copyright 2017, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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