THE BLOG
01/21/2016 04:35 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

Buried in Pills

By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog, Medical Discovery News

Have you ever heard doctors referred to as "pill pushers"? While medical professionals provide necessary and admirable services, it does make you wonder how many pills we take in a day, a month, a year or even a lifetime.

In the British Museum in London, along with the Rosetta Stone and an Easter Island head, there is an exhibit with an expansive glass table, more than a yard wide and at least 20 yards long. On it rests a tapestry-like depiction of the number of pills two individuals would take over their lifetimes in various colors and sizes.

On one side is the medication record of a 76-year-old man and on the other side, a parallel record of an 82-year-old woman. Their life histories as told in pills stretch essentially the whole length of the table. These people led normal lives.

The man had childhood asthma and hay fever but was in generally good health until later in life, when he was treated for high blood pressure and eventually died from a stroke. The woman took contraceptive pills and later hormone replacement therapy. She was treated for breast cancer and then arthritis and diabetes later in life.

The average number of pills taken over their lifetimes was over 14,000! Astoundingly, half of these pills were taken in the last decade of their lives.

There are not any directly comparable statistics, but data suggests Americans are in the same or a very similar situation. For example, more than half of Americans aged 55-64 used one to four prescription drugs and just over one-fifth used five or more over a 30-day period in 2009-2012, higher than the previous decade.

Nearly one-half took a prescription heart-related drug, over 30 percent took a cholesterol-lowering drug and 16 percent took gastric reflux medication. Antidepressant use was up nearly 40 percent from the previous decade. Those delaying medical care reached 13.2 percent in 2013 with almost 9 percent delaying prescription drugs due to cost.

Americans also access over the counter drugs readily. Over 80 percent of people use OTCs as a first response to an ailment. Last year, Americans took almost 3 billion retails trips to purchase OTC products and spent an average of $340 on these products. That is 26 trips to buy OTC drugs from one of 75 million retail places versus three trips to visit a physician yearly.

Overall, the use of OTC drugs totals more than $100 billion in savings versus doctor's charges and diagnostic testing. This is reinforced by physicians, 90 percent of whom believe that OTC drugs are an important part of overall healthcare. This certainly adds to the total number of drugs consumed in the U.S.

Do we consume more drugs than those in other countries? It's hard to say, but it appears likely. However, having access to prescription and OTC medications can certainly benefit an individual's health. We're still waiting for someone to create a tapestry that represents the average drug use by Americans.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.