"Age discrimination is illegal and against the principles of the NHS. Treatment should be based on need, not age"

Elderly patients are being denied life-saving treatment purely because of their age, a report by leading surgeons reveals today.

The study shows a shocking decline in surgical treatments offered to patients over 70 despite the fact they are for conditions that are more prevalent in the elderly.

While a £20bn NHS efficiency drive puts older patients at a "heightened risk" of discrimination, the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) report states that doctors should look at a patient's overall health rather than using an arbitrary age cut-off.

With more people living longer, clinicians have a "moral duty" to care properly for older patients, according to the RCS, while new legislation makes it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of age.

The research by RCS, Age UK and MHP Health Mandate, found that surgery rates decline sharply in older people, particularly after 70, for a number of treatments, including for breast cancer, joint replacements, prostate cancer and hernias.

Michelle Mitchell, charity director general of Age UK, said: "A healthy living 80-year-old could run rings round someone many years younger who does not share the same good health.

"Yet, in the past, too many medical decisions, we believe, have been made on age alone, with informal cut-offs imposed so that people over a certain age were denied treatment."

The authors of the report said there were a number of possible explanations as to why older people were not getting life-saving treatment.

These include clinical factors that mean the risks outweigh the benefits and a cost efficiency drive, which means healthcare workers balance the cost of treatment against the life expectancy of the patient.

Mike Farrar, the NHS Confederation chief executive, said the report presented "worrying figures".

"Age discrimination is not only illegal but goes against all the principles and values of the NHS," he said. "Access to NHS services should always be based first and foremost on clinical need, not on age. We know that prejudicial attitudes against older people still pervade through society, but the NHS and its staff should close the door to such unacceptable behaviour."