updated 12/2/2004 1:55:50 PM ET 2004-12-02T18:55:50

More than four in 10 Americans take at least one prescription drug and one-in-six takes at least three, the government reported Thursday.

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“Americans are taking medicines that lower cholesterol and reduce the threat of heart disease, that help lift people out of debilitating depressions, and that keep diabetes in check,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a statement.

The annual report on Americans’ health found that just over 44 percent of all Americans take at least one prescription drug, and 16.5 percent take at least three.

Those rates were up from 39 percent and 12 percent between 1988 and 1994, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The report, “Health, United States 2004,” presents the latest data collected by the CDC, the National Center for Health Statistics and dozens of other Federal health agencies, academic and professional health associations, and international health organizations.

Americans’ life expectancy increased to 77.3 years in 2002, a record. And deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke — the nation’s three leading killers — are all down 1 percent to 3 percent, the analysis said.

Health spending up 9 percent
The study also found that spending on health climbed 9.3 percent in 2002 to $1.6 trillion.

Prescription drugs, which make up about one-tenth of the total medical bill, were the fastest growing expenditure. The price of drugs rose 5 percent, but wider use of medicines pushed total expenditures up 15.3 percent in 2002. Drug expenditures have risen at least 15 percent every year since 1998.

The report said prescription drug use was increasing among people of all ages, and use increases with age.

Nearly half of all women were taking prescription drugs — 49 percent — compared to 39 percent of men.

Usage peaked at 84 percent for people aged 65 and over, with the top rate at 89 percent for black women over 65.

Even for people under age 18, however, nearly one-fourth — 24.1 percent — were taking at least one prescription medication. The rate rose to 34.7 percent between age 18 and 44; for those ages 45 to 64, it was 62.1 percent.

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