A Dose of Data on Medications

Americans are nothing if not medicated. This is particularly true of baby boomers and those even older than boomers, as a new AARP report makes clear.

In polling conducted last November among Americans age 45-plus, the number who reported taking at least three different prescription or over-the-counter medications on a regular basis easily exceeded the number who said they don’t take any at all. While 28 percent of respondents said they don’t take any over-the-counter medications on a regular basis in a typical month, 35 percent said they take one or two, 28 percent said they take three to six and 9 percent said they take seven or more. The numbers of people regularly taking prescription medications were similar: 29 percent take none, 26 percent take one or two, 32 percent take three to six and 13 percent take seven or more.

Given the number of drugs people ingest, one would hope they’re diligent in reading labels and getting professional advice about what they’re taking. And the survey’s findings on behavior in the past year are surprisingly positive in that regard. Eighty-two percent of respondents claimed to “read the literature that comes with your medications.” Seventy percent said they’ve talked with their doctor or pharmacist about side effects. Nearly as many (69 percent) had a doctor, nurse or pharmacist “look at or review all the medicines you take” within the past six months. Sixty-two percent “kept a record of all prescription and over-the-counter medications you take,” and 54 percent toted this along when consulting a doctor or pharmacist.

As you might guess, women are more reliable than men about such things. For instance, 88 percent of women, vs. 74 percent of men, said they read the literature that accompanies the medications they take. Women were also more likely than men (29 percent vs. 24 percent) to say they have asked their doctor or pharmacist about a specific drug they had seen advertised. Given the toll a prescription regimen can take in money spent and side effects suffered, it’s surprising that just half of all respondents (49 percent) have asked their doctor in the past year “if there are things you can do to reduce the number of medications you take (such as engaging in physical activity or changing your diet).”

Much as people complain about the cost of their prescriptions, their performance is spotty when it comes to seeking less-expensive alternatives. A non-landslide 57 percent said they’ve asked their doctor in the past year to prescribe generic drugs for them as a way of saving money. Thirty-six percent said they have “looked for information so you could compare drug prices.” It’s not that people are consciously averse to generics: 46 percent said they’re “extremely willing” to use generic medicines to reduce their out-of-pocket drug expenses, and another 33 percent said they are “very willing.” Likewise, 62 percent said they’d “always” choose a generic over a brand-name drug if one were available.