The UK's elderly population may be missing out on essential treatments and putting themselves at risk from potentially lethal mixtures of medicines, according to studies presented at the British Pharmaceutical Conference by researchers at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland.

One study, led by pharmacist Johnson George, found that the level of failure among the elderly to take prescribed medicines was actually much lower than in the published literature.

The survey of people in sheltered accommodation in Aberdeen found that 28% of respondents did not always take their medicines, while the same proportion use aids such as an alarm beeper, calendar or medicines box in an effort to help them take their medicines effectively. 17% were being helped by someone to take their medicines correctly.

The researchers found that there were six main reasons why elderly people did not take their medicines appropriately. The older the person, the less likely they were to take their medicines as recommended, and this was the most important factor in non-compliance, while a number of respondents said deviated from the recommended management of their medicines to suit their lifestyle.

Other reasons included not getting help from someone to use their medicines correctly, being confused about their treatment, failing to take steps to ensure they did not run out of their medicines; and concerns about side effects.

Meanwhile, another survey by the group found that 55% of the respondents were taking five or more different medicines daily, with a fifth taking at least 12 tablets or capsules a day and 14% using drugs with a high risk of side effects, such as digoxin and warfarin.

Alarmingly, only 16% said they were receiving help to take their medicines properly, although a higher proportion (23%) said they had been offered information from their community pharmacist about their drugs.

"This research proves that elderly people are at risk of being harmed by potentially lethal mixtures of medicines,” said Kim Munro, the pharmacist leading the survey. “Most people probably aren't even aware that they are in any danger."