The national study of the problem, described as a 'taboo' subject for the elderly and their relatives, was conducted by the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys (OPCS).
The numbers at risk clearly has implications for the introduction of community care next April, which will seek to place greater responsibility for the elderly with their family or other carers.
Another report earlier this year, Confronting Elder Abuse, by the Social Services Inspectorate, explained the underlying reasons in terms of a deterioration of family relationships.
Pressure groups believe the constant stress of caring for the elderly is more often the reason, but sources said the Government pressed the authors to eschew that explanation as it would have required immense resources to tackle the problem.
The OPCS study was conducted for Channel 4's Dispatches programme which complemented it with more detailed research among nurses working in the field in the South-west and Trent areas. They were asked if they knew of abuse in any of six categories: neglect, verbal, medical, financial, physical or sexual.
The 56 nurses in the Trent area told of 704 instances of abuse, 16.71 per cent in a caseload of 4,212. In the South-west, the 42 nurses identified 269 definite cases of abuse, 7.98 per cent, among 3,373 cases.
The OPCS study involved an interview of 2,130 adults, either a member of a household in regular contact with a person of pensionable age, or someone in a household aged over 60.
The authors warn that the figures should be treated with caution because of the small sample size, but the numbers are still revealing. Of the 593 individuals aged 65 and over, 5 per cent report recent verbal abuse by a close family member or relative, 2 per cent physical abuse, and 2 per cent the theft of money or property. Among 1,366 in contact with an elderly person, 10 per cent admitted verbal abuse and 0.9 per cent physical abuse, a contradiction with those who claim to have been physically abused.
'Violence is increasingly being seen as a public health issue,' the report concludes. 'The current and proposed changes in community care policies will have far- reaching consequences. The propect of an increasing number of elderly people at risk of abuse or mistreatment as a consequence of social policy, by family members . . . unable to cope with the demands of caring, is alarming and wants urgent attention.'
Jef Smith, of Counsel and Care, a voluntary help group for old people, echoed the fears over community care. 'Elder people are going to be at the mercy, literally, of people who will be at best overstretched and at worst, outwardly hostile.'
He said that ultimately the Government must provide support for those who take on the burden if community care is to have any chance of working.
Dispatches, C4, 9pm today.