One in five pensioners pops seven pills every day in the UK

One in five pensioners pops seven pills every day and millions are being given drugs they don’t even need, bombshell report from Age UK reveals

  • Two million UK over-65s now take at least seven different medications each day
  • Overwhelming majority of pensioners, 86 per cent, taking at least one medicine 
  • Age UK report warns that many people are now at risk of serious side effects 

Millions of pensioners are being given drugs they don’t need due to ‘systematic failings’ in the NHS, a startling report warns today.

Two million over-65s – 20 per cent of pensioners – now take at least seven different medications each day, it found. Some 39 per cent are on at least five prescription drugs.

And the overwhelming majority of pensioners – 86 per cent – are taking at least one medicine.

The report, by the Age UK charity, warns that the medicalisation of the elderly is putting many people at risk of serious side effects.

‘Many older people are being let down by a healthcare system that is allowing medicines to do more harm than good,’ it warns. The problem is being allowed to persist because of systematic failings in care co-ordination, communications and individual responsibility.’

The authors stress that many of these are life-saving medicines. But they estimate that roughly a fifth of all prescribed drugs are incorrectly given – and such high use is putting elderly people at risk of unnecessary side effects such as falls, nausea, delirium and weight loss.

Other experts said many pensioners are effectively being ‘sedated’ with a cocktail of drugs. A ‘chemical cosh’ of medication puts their lives at risk.

More than three quarters of people over the age of 70 experience an adverse drug reaction in any six-month period – and the problem causes 6 per cent of emergency hospital admissions.

The Age UK report says: ‘The risk of older people being prescribed dangerous combinations of medicines is particularly high because they are often already taking multiple medicines, and the risk increases as the number of medicines a person takes goes up.

‘Once you are taking more than four medicines, the chance of an adverse drug reaction gets exponentially worse for every new medicine you take.’

The figures are based on a snapshot of NHS Digital data gathered in 2016 and do not look at how prescriptions have changed over time among the elderly.

The report by Age UK also estimates that roughly a fifth of all prescribed drugs are incorrectly given (file photo)

The report by Age UK also estimates that roughly a fifth of all prescribed drugs are incorrectly given (file photo)

But the authors stressed that among all ages the NHS is doling out more drugs than ever before, with spending on prescriptions having increased by 40 per cent since 2011.

And with 60 per cent of all drugs given to over-60s, the figures suggest the problem is getting worse. A large part of the problem is our growing and ageing population, while rising obesity, and unhealthy lifestyles mean poor health is more common than in the recent past.

But the authors also blame rushed doctors, who they say are not taking the time to properly assess the drugs they give out. And when patients start taking medications they continue to do so for years without anyone reviewing the prescriptions.

Even when GPs do look over someone’s notes they are often ‘reluctant’ to question colleagues’ decisions, leading to what they call ‘medication creep’, the report says.

Fish oils ‘have no benefit’ 

Supplements such as omega 3 offer no benefit whatsoever, a World Health Organisation report has found.

Increased consumption of fish oils is promoted in the belief that it will protect against – or even reverse – conditions such as diabetes.

But the WHO-commissioned review published yesterday in the British Medical Journal found omega 3 supplements failed to alleviate symptoms. In the review combining trials of more than 120,000 people, those who took more fish oil had the same diabetes diagnosis risk as a control group.

Dr Lee Hooper, of East Anglia University’s Medical School, said: ‘There was a consistent lack of effect of fish oils on any … factors related to diabetes risk.’

Tom Gentry, senior policy manager at Age UK, said use of financial incentives to encourage GPs to prescribe drugs may have also driven up the numbers.

That programme – the Quality and Outcomes Framework – was introduced by Labour in 2004 to give GP practices financial incentives to hit certain targets. It rewards doctors if they hit targets for treating heart disease, stroke, asthma, epilepsy, diabetes and even obesity.

‘You see a spike in prescriptions with the 2004 contract change,’ Mr Gentry said.

Heart disease pills – including statins, beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors – account for nearly half of all drugs taken by the over-65s, previous research has found. Painkillers, tablets for stomach ulcers and diabetes drugs are also very common.

Clive Ballard, professor of age-related diseases at the University of Exeter, said many elderly people are effectively ‘sedated’ with unnecessary drugs.

‘They may already be confused or have mobility problems, and subjecting them to this ‘chemical cosh’ can lead to falls and fractures that increase death and injury,’ he said. ‘It’s a particular issue in care homes.’

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘Of course we don’t want to see people taking unnecessary medications and it is normal practice for any long-term prescriptions to be kept under review and reduced or discontinued if no longer necessary.

‘With many older people living with multiple and complex health conditions, prescriptions for more than one medication will often be vital and no course of treatment should be stopped without the advice and support of a GP or other suitably qualified healthcare professional.’

Last year, the Government commissioned a review of over-prescription.

NHS England’s chief pharmaceutical officer, Keith Ridge, who is in charge of it, said: ‘We know many patients are prescribed medicines they may no longer need, which is why the NHS Long Term Plan is funding pharmacy teams to give advice to people with long-term illnesses – who are often taking multiple medicines – and extra support to staff.

‘The NHS is also already investing in thousands of new clinical pharmacists to work with GPs and care homes to carry out medication reviews with vulnerable patients.’

The Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘We are committed to making sure patients get the safest and most appropriate treatment, while cutting down unnecessary prescriptions.

‘From October, patients leaving hospital will get more time with their pharmacists to discuss changes to their medication.’

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