Age UK has warned that 2 million older people are risking side-effects as one in 10 over-65s in England take at least eight prescribed medications each week.
According to the charity's report, while many of the medications are vital for those with complex conditions, one in five prescriptions for older people living at home are inappropriate, and care home residents take an average of at least eight medicines, with a one in 10 risk of a mistake when the drugs are prescribed or given to them.
Age UK said the more medicines older people take, the greater their risk of having a fall. This is because the way the body processes medicines changes with age, which means older people may be more susceptible to side-effects, including dizziness, which can lead to falls, confusion, feeling low, nausea, appetite loss, weight loss and weakness.
Adverse drug reactions also cause nearly 6% of unplanned hospital admissions, with a fatal reaction in one in 50 cases, according to the report.
However, the charity added that older people should not worry about taking multiple medicines if they are appropriately prescribed and correctly managed. It wants older people to be more fully involved in decisions about what they are prescribed and for doctors to regularly review what they are taking.
British Geriatrics Society Drugs and Prescribing Special Interest Group Chair Dr Henry Woodford said he recognised the picture painted in the report: “It’s something I see on a day to day basis." He said the medicines have not been tested in trials in combination with other drugs or they might have been tested on 60-year-olds but not on people over 70.
Age UK Charity Director Caroline Abrahams said: "Our strong advice to older people is never to stop taking any of your medications off your own bat but to talk to your GP if you have concerns and to ask for a review if you haven't had one for a year or more."
She said everyone's needs change over time and new treatments are always becoming available, so it is worth asking doctors to look at whether the medicines are the best they can be and whether they are all still necessary.
Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Chair Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard said no-one should be taking unnecessary medicines but people should not stop taking their medication without first seeking the advice and support of a GP or other suitably qualified healthcare professional.
She said family doctors only prescribe a medication after weighing up the risks and benefits for the patient. She added: "Of course, we don't want to see people taking unnecessary medications. This is not good for the health of our patients or for NHS resources and it is normal practice for any long-term prescriptions to be kept under review and reduced or discontinued if no longer necessary."
Age UK is calling on the Government to take full account of the harmful effects of inappropriate multiple medications on older people in its planned review of NHS overprescribing.
Last reviewed 27 August 2019