Ranked: The Most Prescribed Drugs in the U.S.
Every day, millions of people in the U.S. take prescribed drugs to help them live their lives.
As our understanding of medicine has evolved, we’ve been able to develop drugs to aid with some of the most common medical conditions—from pain and blood pressure drugs to asthma medication, thyroid treatments, and antidepressants.
This graphic uses prescribed medicines data from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, released in 2021 for the 2019 calendar year. It also uses supporting drug and health information from MedlinePlus.
What are the Most Prescribed Drugs in America?
Sorting the annual prescribed medicines data by the total number of patients highlights how important and prevalent some drugs are in America.
The most prescribed drug, atorvastatin (sold under brand Lipitor), was prescribed to 24.5 million people in the U.S. in 2019, or 7.5% of the population. It was one of many statin medications listed, which are used to prevent cardiovascular disease and treat abnormal lipid levels.
In fact, a majority of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. are used to treat high blood pressure or symptoms of it. That’s because 108 million or nearly half of adults in the U.S. have hypertension or high blood pressure.
|Drug Name||Total U.S. Patients (2019)||Brand Name||Primary Use|
|Lisinopril||19,990,170||Prinivil, Zestril||Blood Pressure|
|Metoprolol||15,177,787||Lopressor, Toprol XL||Blood Pressure|
|Omeprazole||12,869,290||Losec, Prilosec||Stomach Acid|
|Amoxicillin; Clavulanate||6,468,086||Augmentin, Clavulin||Antibiotic|
|Tramadol||5,496,843||Ultram, Zytram||Pain (Opioid)|
Other common prescriptions include antibiotics like amoxicillin and azithromycin, used to treat bacterial infections, as well as levothyroxine, which was used by 19.7 million Americans to treat thyroid hormone deficiency.
Asthma medication albuterol (usually prescribed through an inhaler) rounded out the top five prescribed drugs with the most patients, followed closely by Type 2 diabetes medication glucophage.
The Top Medical Conditions Treated by Prescription Drugs
The prevalence of cardiovascular-related medication becomes clear when combining the total patients for each type of medication.
The total number of patients with prescribed medication for blood pressure or cholesterol combined for 33% of the U.S. population.
Compared to that, medication for pain or inflammation were the most frequent on the top 30 list with five occurrences, but were only prescribed to 13.6% of people. That includes hydrocodone (known by the brand name Vicodin) and tramadol (known by the brand name Ultram), two opioid medications.
|Primary Use of Prescribed Drug||U.S. Patients as % Pop (2019)|
Most of the top 30 prescribed medications for specific conditions saw patients total less than 6% of the U.S. population. They include thyroid issues, gastrointestinal conditions, and mental conditions treated by antidepressants (including panic disorder, anxiety disorders, and PTSD).
But it’s important to remember that some patients have multiple prescriptions for serious conditions with multiple symptoms, or comorbid conditions—when more than one disease or condition is present at the same time.
Drug Spending in the U.S.
A prescribed drug’s total number of patients doesn’t necessarily reflect how important it is, or how expensive it is for the end user.
Levothyroxine is the fourth-most prescribed drug by total patients, but the second-most prescribed drug by total prescriptions with 102.6 million in 2019 at an average cost of $25.10 per prescription.
More specialized medication like fluticasone had significantly less total prescriptions with 27.9 million, but an average cost of $97.68 per prescription.
Prices are influenced by a drug’s demand, whether or not it’s patented or available in generic form, and a country’s healthcare system. As far as OECD countries go, the U.S. ranks as the most costly almost across the board.
Since the current rankings look at the U.S. pre-COVID, next year’s prescription data will be illuminating as to the state of American health (and healthcare).
Charted: Average Years Left to Live by Age
Visualizing the number of years left to live for Americans at every age, reveals the broader trends in American life expectancy.
How Many Years Do You Have Left to Live?
At the start of the 19th century, when there fewer than 1 billion humans on the earth, global life expectancy at birth stood at roughly 29 years.
This is a startlingly low figure—because life expectancy is a statistical projection of how many more years a person can expect to live, based on the mortality rates at the time. And since the infant mortality rate in particular was so high, life expectancies accurately summarized the low likelihood of many babies living to adulthood.
However, since the 1920s, life expectancy across all ages has improved leaps and bounds, thanks to rapid advancements in nutrition, healthcare, and sanitation.
We visualized the current American life expectancy by age and gender, using data from the Office of Social Security, which bases their current projections on 2020 mortality rates.
American Life Expectancy at Every Age
A key takeaway with life expectancy is that it increases as one gets older. This is easily seen in the table below, which lists the remaining years left to live at a given age for an American male and the projected life expectancy.
|Age||Years Remaining (Men)||Life Expectancy (Men)|
At birth, an average American baby boy can expect to live till just past 74. But if the boy reaches adulthood, then at 21 he might live to a full year more, past 75. This trend persists even towards the end of life when the years we have left drop rapidly, influenced by the higher likelihood of death.
American women, on the other hand, have a higher life expectancy than men. At birth the gap is close to six years, narrowing steadily to around one year by 85.
Interestingly, women outlive men in nearly every country in the world, due to a mix of sociological, behavioral, and biological reasons.
COVID-19: Reversing A Decade of Increasing American Life Expectancy
While the current American life expectancy at birth seems reasonably high, it is nearly two years lower than the 2022 figure which used the 2019 mortality rate. It is also lower than the life expectancy at birth in 2009, which used 2005 mortality rate.
at Birth (Men)
at Birth (Women)
American mortality rates went up 17% between 2019–2020, in part because of COVID-19, in turn affecting life expectancy. The U.S. also had a higher COVID-19 mortality rate compared to its peers two years after the pandemic first struck.
Thus, American life expectancy may not improve immediately to 2019 levels, which can affect insurance premiums, pension benefits, and plans.
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