Consider, for example, antidepressants, the use of which increased nearly 400 percent between 1998 and 2008, according to a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. "There are individuals for whom these drugs work exceptionally well—people who now know what it's like to be happy," Graedon says. But for others, these medications perform just barely better than a placebo and can have side effects ranging from sexual dysfunction to irritability. In the end, some patients may not mind side effects; for others, especially those who don't have life-threatening illnesses, such complications may be deal-breakers.
If you are suffering from bothersome side effects or want to stop taking a particular drug, you should first consult with your healthcare provider, says Longworth. While some side effects can be serious, certain medications should not be stopped abruptly due to withdrawal symptoms.
Also talk to your healthcare provider about your therapeutic goals, insurance situation, and non-drug alternatives, advises Murphy. For instance, the DASH diet—which involves eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting back on salt and foods high in saturated fat—has been shown in studies to lower blood pressure, increase "good" HDL cholesterol, and decrease LDL cholesterol.
Another reason to discuss drug alternatives is that medications don't always work as consistently as we would hope. Schwartz's research, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2011, reveals the disconnect between how we view drugs and how they really perform. Thirty-nine percent of participants believed the FDA only approves "extremely effective" drugs, and 25 percent believed the FDA only approves drugs without serious side effects. That could have something to do with upbeat ads featuring smiling patients, which make it difficult to get a full picture of a new drug's shortcomings, Graedon says. Both suppositions are wrong.
Which brings us back to our original question: Do drugs really help us live longer? In the end, the answer can depend on your individual health—and how much of an involved patient you're willing to be.
To help ensure your medications aren't having the opposite effect, cutting your life short rather than extending it, "the most important thing to do is to make sure that [your] doctor knows all the drugs [you] are taking—both prescription and over the counter," says Schwartz. (It's especially important to be vigilant if you're an older adult, since body changes can affect the way drugs are absorbed in your system—and because older adults tend to take more medications.) And if you're being prescribed medications by different specialists, and don't have one point of contact, it's important to keep all providers up to date. "Many electronic records will automatically give alerts when there are interactions," she says. "But to be sure, it's always good to ask the doctor these questions as a reminder: 'Do I really need all of these medicines? Are there any dangers of taking them together?'"
What's more, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that up to 4 percent of patients could be putting themselves at risk of a dangerous—potentially deadly—drug interaction, based on their use of prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as dietary supplements. Many patients misinterpret, or worse don't read, their prescription labels. Even natural products, like St. John's wort, can spell serious trouble when mixed with certain medications, including some antidepressants, birth control pills, and narcotics, reports the National Library of Medicine.
Being an involved, informed patient improves the chances that your medications can help extend your life in certain situations or can mitigate negative outcomes associated with chronic and acute illness. "We should trust our physicians. We should trust our pharmacists. But we should always, always verify," says Graedon. "Be your own advocate."