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America's Massive Intake of Prescription Drugs in Five Charts

America’s relationship with prescription drugs has deepened over the past few decades. Pharmaceutical companies invented new therapies to treat such common conditions as high cholesterol and depression, and insurance coverage of those medications expanded, particularly in the wake of the 2006 Medicare drug plan.

The Centers for Disease Control’s annual snapshot of U.S. health, released Wednesday, shows the growing role medication plays in our lives. By the end of the last decade almost half of Americans were taking at least one prescription medication, up 10 percent from two decades ago. The proportion taking five or more drugs more than doubled, even after accounting for an an aging population.

Data: CDC

Medication for cholesterol and cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure have increased substantially, and much of this trend reflects the growth of new therapies. The cholesterol drug Lipitor, among the most widely prescribed medications, was approved by the FDA in 1996. The first modern antidepressants, including Prozac and Zoloft, were only just hitting the market in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Data: CDC

Prescription drug use by older Americans also increased over the past decade:

Data: CDC

One of the 20th century’s greatest public health advances was the development of antibiotics to cure previously lethal infections. But overuse of the medicines leads to concern about the rise of new bacteria they couldn’t treat and an effort to use more restraint in prescribing them. The number of patients who saw doctors for cold symptoms and went home with antibiotics dropped in the late 1990s and has remained around 30 percent since.

Data: CDC

Powerful prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone have been widely abused. The toll of opioid addiction is growing: Deaths from prescription painkillers more than tripled in the first decade of the 21th century, according to the CDC.

Data: CDC

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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