Higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol problems among young people could be the driving factors, experts say. Also, doctors are getting more aggressive with preventive treatments,
However instead of being dismayed the American medical community seems to be happy that more youngsters are becoming aware of the need to go in for such medicines.
Dr. Howard Weintraub, the heart disease prevention expert at the American College of Cardiology, seems s "thrilled" by the dramatic increase. There is a "brand new sense of urgency" and referrals from other doctors to his private practice, he is quoted as saying by news agency AP.
"If you wait until a heart attack or stroke, it's a little bit late," Weintraub said.
"This is good news, that more people in this age range are taking these medicines," said Dr. Daniel W. Jones, president of the American Heart Association.
Still, he said many more people should be on the drugs that lower cholesterol or blood pressure and which have been shown to reduce risks for heart attack and stroke.
The new data, from prescription benefit manager Medco Health Solutions Inc., indicate use of cholesterol-lowering drugs among people aged 20 to 44, while still low, jumped 68% over a six-year period.
The rate rose from 2.5% in 2001 to just over 4% in 2006 among Medco customers. That means roughly 4.2 million Americans in that age group are now taking cholesterol medicines.
Meanwhile, use of blood pressure medicines increased 21%, from about 7% of 20- to 44-year-olds in 2001 to over 8% in 2006. That translates into about 8.5 million Americans in that age group taking drugs to lower their blood pressure.
"It was a surprise to us," said Dr. Robert Epstein, chief medical officer at Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based Medco. "Maybe the fact that we're seeing more young people with high cholesterol and blood pressure is indicative of the epidemic of obesity and overweight that we're seeing in this country."
Among people 65 and older, use of blood pressure drugs increased only 9.5% and use of cholesterol drugs by 52%. That's because half the seniors were already taking blood pressure drugs and more than one in four were taking cholesterol drugs in 2001.
Jones, dean of the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, said he has seen some increase in young adults with blood pressure or cholesterol problems, but not of the magnitude suggested by Medco's data.
Dr. John LaRosa, president of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, felt that for young people, lifestyle change was worth a try.
Once patients start taking these medicines, they usually stay with them and there are some side effects, LaRosa said.
"It's amazing what (losing) five or 10 pounds will do" to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, he said.
Federal health statistics show that while the percentage of people with high cholesterol has dropped overall in recent years, it has risen among younger people, especially those 20 to 34 years old.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of high blood pressure was flat or up slightly among those age groups; among women in the 35 to 44 age group, the rate of high blood pressure rose significantly.
Medco processes prescription claims for about 60 million insured Americans. The report's findings are based on a representative sample of data from 2.5 million members.