The medicalisation of the elderly is at an all-time high, with half of all over-65s in the UK taking at least five drugs every day. A study carried out by Cambridge University found that the number of pensioners taking this many pills has quadrupled in two decades.
Of the nine million pensioners in the country, around 4.5 million or 49 per cent are on a minimum of five drugs a day. This is up from 12 per cent 20 years ago and leaves just seven per cent of the demographic taking no regular medication at all.
Such widespread drugs use can be partly put down to a system put in place by the previous Labour government in which doctors were given bonuses for prescribing medications. The move has left some elderly patients taking as many as 23 different tablets a day.
There are a number of concerns associated with an individual taking so many different types of drugs at the same time. These include the potential for the active ingredients to react with each other and produce side effects and health complications.
Caroline Abrahams, a spokeswoman for Age UK, has spoken out against the issue. She has called for regular reviews of the medication being taken by elderly people to ensure that all of it is necessary and not potentially harmful.
She said: “We know that older people are at risk of being on too many drugs, without doctors always really understanding how they interact and what their side effects may be. This is why it is important that older people’s medicines are routinely reviewed.”
Qualifying this, she added that it was important that patients don’t stop taking any form of regular medication without first consulting a doctor. Elderly residents of care homes can be assisted in getting their drugs reviewed by staff arranging a doctor’s appointment.
Polypharmacy – an increased dependence on medication – is widespread in modern-day Britain, due to the advancement of science that has led to life-saving and life-changing drugs. The researchers did express concern about the situation, however.
Professor Carol Brayne, lead author of the study, conducted by the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, told the Daily Mail: “We know that polypharmacy is associated with higher mortality and that the evidence for combination therapies on the scale that we have seen them in the older population is not good.”
The research started in the 1980s and has included 15,000 elderly individuals across two long-term studies. The subjects came from three different areas – Newcastle, Nottingham and Cambridge – and were tasked with recording all the drugs they took, whether prescribed or bought over the counter.
Findings suggested that heart disease pills were the most prevalent type of medication taken by the over-65s. These drugs, which include statins and beta blockers, made up nearly half of all the drugs taken by the test subjects. Prescriptions for these had increased by 230 per cent between the first and second trial periods.