In the global pill-popping league, the UK comes well down the table / GETTY IMAGES

We are a nation of pill- poppers who are increasingly dependent on drugs to keep us plodding on, new figures show.

In the past decade, prescribing by GPs has risen more than 50 per cent to 15.7 items per head – more than one item a month for every man, woman and child in the country – compared to 10.3 items in 1997. The findings show that 796 million prescription items were dispensed in 2007, at an average cost of £10.51.

Elderly people swallow the most, according to statistics from the NHS Information Centre. On average, the over-60s received 42.4 prescription items each in 2007, almost one a week and nearly 50 per cent more than in 1997 (22.3 items).

But in the global pill- popping league, the UK comes well down the table, with spending per head a third less than in France and half that in the US.

In England, to which the latest figures relate, our growing dependency on drugs has boosted the profits of pharmaceutical companies. Spending has increased 49.5 per cent in real terms since 1997 to £8.4bn.

The figures understate the true total of drugs prescribed and their costs because they include only medicines dispensed by community pharmacists and GPs. Drugs issued in hospitals, which account for at least 10 per cent of the total, are excluded.

Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "We should celebrate adding years to life and ensure they are high-quality extra years... People are living longer with conditions such as diabetes because we are treating them better."