Prescription Drug Use On the Rise in Children

Filed under: Medical Conditions, In The News

More than one in four insured children are now reported to regularly take prescription medication in the U.S. Credit: Getty Images

Prescription drug use in American children rose by 5 percent in 2009, the highest of any other single demographic group, and nearly four times higher than the overall population,
according to the 2010 Drug Trend Report compiled by Medco Health Solutions, a provider of pharmacy benefit plans and the largest mail order pharmacy operation in the U.S.

The report, which looks at prescription spending, found that more than one in four insured children are now taking at least one prescription medication to treat a chronic medical condition. The figure is even higher -- nearly 30 percent -- for adolescents aged 10 to 19.

The most significant increases over the past nine years have been seen in the use of antipsychotic, diabetes, and asthma drugs.

Strikingly, the number of children 19 and younger using type 2 diabetes medications has risen by more than 150 percent since 2001, with adolescent girls increasing by an incredible 200 percent. Type 2 diabetes -- once known as adult onset diabetes -- is linked to obesity and physical inactivity, according to The Obesity Society, with nearly 90 percent of people with the condition reported to be overweight. When you consider the growing epidemic of obesity in the U.S., the dramatic rise in this class of medications is not surprising.

The report also links obesity to the higher rates of hypertension and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) in young people, with accompanying increases in the categories of drugs that treat those conditions. GERD is a disorder in which stomach acid and digestive enzymes flow backwards into the esophagus, the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach, frequently causing heartburn. Though studies have determined that obesity drives GERD symptoms in children, researchers have not pinpointed exactly why.

During the nine-year period, from 2001 to 2009, use of hypertensives to treat high blood pressure in children was reported to be up by 17 percent -- 29 percent in boys aged 10 to 19 -- and use of proton pump inhibitors used to treat heartburn and GERD increased by 147 percent over the same period.

"The fact that one in three adolescents are being treated for a chronic condition points to the need for additional health education and lifestyle changes that can address the obesity issue that is likely a driving force behind such conditions as type 2 diabetes and even asthma," Dr. Robert S. Epstein, Medco's chief medical officer and president of the Medco Research Institute, says in a news release on Medco's website.

Asthma drug use grew by 5 percent in 2009, and 42 percent since 2001, confirming the continuing rise in childhood asthma that has been seen in recent years.

Use of atypical antipsychotic drugs in children doubled since 2001, and it has more than doubled in adolescent girls. Atypical antipsychotics are powerful medications traditionally used to treat schizophrenia, but Medco reports they are now prescribed increasingly for other conditions, including depression and anxiety. Use of these drugs has been associated with significant weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes, leading experts to question their use in the pediatric population.

Perhaps this is countered by the 23 percent decrease since 2004 reported in the use of antidepressants by youth, which the Medco report attributes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's warnings of the increased risk of suicidal thoughts in children using these drugs.

"Looking at children was the real shocker for us," Dr. Robert Epstein, Medco's chief medical officer, said on a conference call from Medco's drug trend symposium in Orlando, Fla.

Clearly, the news points to a disturbing trend in child health, and Medco says that the increases in prescription drug use by children for chronic conditions could fuel significantly higher health care costs as those young patients enter adulthood.

Related: Despite Doctors' Concerns, Many Pregnant Women Demand Anti-Depression Meds

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