Almost half of the population of England is regularly taking prescribed drugs, with cholesterol-lowering statins, pain relief and anti-depressants among the most common, a major study has found.
The comprehensive Health Survey for England, which provides a snapshot of the nation’s health, shows 43% of men and 50% of women took at least one medicine in the last week.
This represents an average of 2.7 million items dispensed every day in the UK.
More than 307 million prescriptions, 30% of the total, were for cardiovascular disease. The most commonly prescribed single medicine was cholesterol-lowering simvastatin.
The cost to the NHS was more than £15 billion per year out of a total budget of nearly £100 billion. The figures exclude contraceptives and products to help give up smoking.
Almost a quarter of both sexes had taken at least three prescribed drugs in the last week. This increased with age, with 70% of those aged 75 and over taking at least three medicines.
The survey covers a broad range of issues from social care to smoking and obesity.
Kingsley Manning, chairman of the Health and Social Care Information Centre which carried out the research, said: “The publication of the Health Survey for England provides us with valuable information on the health and lifestyle of the population. This report enables us to find out information on how these topics affect members of the public.
“For the first time we have been able to look at the use of e-cigarettes within our report, as well as looking at topics such as eye care, end of life care and social care.”
Nearly a third of adult smokers had used an electronic cigarette but only 3% reported currently using them.
One per cent of non-smokers said they had tried the devices.
There has been a steady decline in the proportion of women smokers over the last decade (17% in 2013 compared with 24% in 2003) but this change has been less pronounced in men (down to 24% from 27%).
The survey examined the issue of social care for people over 65 and found that services are under pressure.
It found a third of women and almost a quarter of men needed help with at least one aspect of their daily life which is important to daily living, such as personal care or mobility around the home.
Just under half of these people received at least some help – with men usually helped by their wives and women by a daughter – but many had an unmet care need.
Some 1.1 million people received community-based care provided by their local authority and a further 270,000 bought care privately.
The report said that the current and previous governments had pursued policies – such as the introduction of personal budgets – to help people maintain independence in their own homes for as long as possible.
But it added: “A number of factors have been seen as imposing further pressures on the demand for care services.
“These include the growth of the ageing population, other demographic changes such as changes in the birth rate, changes in family structures and migration between urban and rural areas, as well as changes in expectations.
“In particular, the growth in the number of people with dementia is expected to exert substantial pressure on care services.”
The results also showed that about a quarter of adults were obese (26% of men and 24% of women). Based on body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, 41% of men and 33% of women were overweight, but not obese.
Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said the most telling statistic from the survey is the new data showing that nearly 85% of smokers want to stop smoking.
She added: “To anyone in this situation, I would strongly recommend they speak to their doctor about accessing their local stop smoking services, which have been shown to be by far the most effective way of successfully quitting smoking.
“These findings should also add impetus to us in the public health sector to look at new ways in which we can support smokers to quit. The intention is clearly there, and if we can help the 85% of smokers who want to quit achieve that goal, we could literally save thousands of lives in this country.”
Referring to e-cigarette use, she said: “It is encouraging to see the data from this survey align with most of the previous research in this country, in showing e-cigarette use to be largely limited to former or current smokers, rather than non-smokers.
“However, it is important to continue to monitor the situation, as it could well change as e-cigarettes continue to become more commonplace.
“Although there is no indication that e-cigarettes are anywhere near as harmful as smoking, we wouldn’t recommend them for children and non-smokers, at least until more research has been conducted into the long-term health impact of sustained use.”
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of charity Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said: “It is encouraging that the latest Government research shows use of electronic cigarettes is concentrated among smokers with very few children using the devices.
“So far there is no evidence that use of electronic cigarettes is proving to be a gateway into smoking.”
Andrew Kaye, head of policy and campaigns at Independent Age, said it was “hard to imagine” the lives of people who struggle with at least one aspect of self-care who do not receive any support.
He added: “In fact, we know 70,000 older people say they struggle with three or more activities of daily living and worryingly don’t receive any care.
“That is why, as we recently warned, councils have a lot to do to reach out to older people in need, but crucially haven’t got the funds they require to meet the vision of reducing care needs set out in the new Care Act.”