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Health Insight August 2001: Ageing issues


The number of prescriptions of sedative and anti-psychotic drugs given to elderly patients increased by over seventy per cent in the year 1999–2000. The statistics were obtained by the Liberal Democrat spokesman for older people, Paul Burstow. ‘These figures are very frightening,’ said Mr Burstow. ‘Older people are the victims of a chemical cosh. With a chronic shortage of specialist staff to support older people with dementia and other mental health problems, these figures show that care homes are turning to a chemical cocktail of drugs to keep people quiet and easier to manage.’ The Royal College of Physicians first drew attention to the mass prescribing of sedative drugs to elderly people in 1997. A spokeswoman for the college said, ‘We’re deeply disappointed that the situation is worse than when we did our report a few years ago.’ The charity Age Concern called for an urgent investigation into the reasons for the increase and in particular to investigate concerns that it might be linked to under-funding and short-staffing in care homes. A spokeswoman said, ‘We would be extremely worried if this were to be found, as it would have very serious implications for the quality of older people’s lives.’ Health minister Jacqui Smith said NICE was expected to issue guidance on the use of the drugs in December.

The DoH is to set up a new national joint registry for artificial hips and knees. Health minister Lord Philip Hunt said the announcement followed the Department’s extensive consultation of a national joint registry, following reports from NICE and the National Audit Office last year on artificial hips. Lord Hunt said, ‘Establishing this registry will lead to earlier review of patients with joint replacements, regular monitoring of performance of these new joints, and faster identification of those joint replacements that perform badly. This database of information about artificial hips and knees will also monitor how well individual hospitals perform in this area of healthcare.’

National statistics on the health of older people in England have been published. The 2000 Health Survey for England interviewed over 2,000 people who were living in care homes, and over 1,100 living in private households. All were aged 65 and over. The survey included questions on cognitive functioning, general health, long-standing illness, use of health services, disabilities, accidents, height and weight measurement, and blood pressure measurement. The full survey is available on the DoH website at www.doh.gov.uk/public/summary.htm.

Women aged over seventy who have breast cancer are being denied the life-saving treatment available to younger women, according to the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC). While younger women routinely have surgery to remove their tumours, those who are older usually only get the drug tamoxifen. Around 13,000 women over the age of 70 are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and this figure is expected to get higher as the population ages. The CRC said that doctors believe the older women are too frail to be operated on successfully. However, a new CRC-funded study, the ‘Golden Oldies Trial’ showed that women would enjoy an average of three extra years of life if they had surgery, which would mean hundreds of lives being saved each year. The CRC is teaming up with Age Concern to call for an end to discrimination by ensuring older women have the option of surgery. Dr June Crown, chairman of Age Concern, said, ‘The prospect of having the fundamental choice of treatment taken away from you on the basis of your age is quite simply age discrimination – whatever the intentions might be.’ Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC said, ‘This study should cause a sea-change in our attitude to the treatment of older women.’

Sources: BBC Online, Press releases (DoH)

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