Britons are swallowing more pills than ever: NHS figures show that the number of prescriptions dispensed has soared by 70 per cent over the last decade. Every man, woman and child in the country received on average 17.8 prescription items in 2010. The vast majority went to those aged over 60, who received 42.4 items each in 2007.

However, the figure has not been updated in the latest report for 2010, because the sample of the population on which it is based is no longer regarded as providing a reliable estimate, according to a spokesperson for the NHS Information Centre.

The growth in prescribing has been fuelled not only by the ageing population but by increased efforts to prevent heart disease and stroke: seven million people are taking statins daily to reduce their cholesterol levels.

Spending on drugs has risen from £113 a head in 2000 to £169 in 2010, although the cost per item has fallen slightly as many are now off-patent. Drugs issued in hospitals, which account for at least another 10 per cent of the total, are excluded from the data.

Despite the latest rise, Britain is still well down in the global pill-popping league, way behind France and the US. Mike Holden, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association, said it was vital to get value for money from the £9bn annual investment in medicines. "Up to half of all medicines for long-term conditions are not taken as intended by the prescriber," he said.