The statistic – revealed for the first time in a study published on Monday – suggests Australia's elderly are taking more drugs, more often, than their counterparts in the US and UK.
Experts aren't sure why. Nor are they sure why the trend appears to be increasing.
But they are worried. Although many people take multiple medications for good reason, taking five or more medicines together is an increase in a person's risk of disability and death.
"They've been getting started on a medicine 20 years ago, and they are still on it." "Quite often they don't know what they are taking medicine for," says Dr Danijela Gnjidic, a University of Sydney researcher who has published several papers on the issue.
In some cases those medicines can interfere with each other. The symptoms of this are often mixed with other diseases. It is a dangerous cycle, says Dr Gnjidic.
Researchers have long suspected "polypharmacy", as is is known, is a major issue in Australia, but so far this study had had no statistics on the size of the problem.
Dr. Amy Page and his colleagues over a period of 70 years given to people over 70 between 2006 and 2017 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, looking for people who were on more than five medications at a time.
935,240 people – 36 per cent of people in that age bracket. More than 153,000 of them took more than 10 different medicines, with about 17,000 taking over 15.
That number has increased in the past decade, both as a total number and as a proportion despite efforts to tackle it.
"Part of the increase is because we have more people living in old age – which is a wonderful thing," says Dr Page, a researcher at The Alfred Hospital and Lead Author of the Study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
"But we have also seen the prevalence is increasing as well. And that’s not such a wonderful thing. "
The study did not assess whether the medications were appropriate for the individual, Dr Page cautioned.
There is no direct evidence of multiple medications causing harm, only that is linked to an increase in risk.
But there are concerns. Medicines can interact in complex and unpredictable ways. Taking many pills is expensive. Having to take care of a complicated pill Raise the risks of making a mistake – taking too many of the wrong pill, for example.
And many medications are approved as safe based on clinical trials on young, healthy people. It is not clear if they are more or less safe for the elderly, Dr Page said.
Dr Gnjidic's 70-year-old father just hit the "polypharmacy cut-off", his fifth daily medication. "So I have been having long conversations – with him and with his GP," she says.
She encourages anyone taking multiple medications to talk to their pharmacists and GPs to ensure they are appropriate.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald's science reporter