Multiple medicine use very common: New snapshot of over-50s medicine habits

16 January 2012

A study by NPS in collaboration with the University of Melbourne published in the Medical Journal of Australia — has provided new insights into how people use medicines on a daily basis and highlights that the use of multiple medicines in older Australians is common and more complex than previously thought.

The national survey of Australians aged 50 and over found that on the day the snapshot was taken:

  • Medicines were used by the majority of Australians (87% of Australians aged 50 and over used at least one medicine)
  • The use of multiple medicines was common with one third of 50-64 year olds, almost half of 65-74 year olds, and two thirds of people aged 75 and over taking five or more medicines on that day; and
  • Women were more likely overall to be medicine users than men (90.3% versus 83.9%).

NPS CEO Dr Lynn Weekes says the study’s findings emphasise the importance of the availability of accurate information about medicines, and of people speaking with their health professional about the medicines they are taking.

“For people taking multiple medicines, it’s especially important to keep track of what they are taking and when by using a Medicines List and sharing that information with their health professional,” said Dr Weekes.

According to the study authors, medicines are increasingly being used to modify health risks, improve wellbeing and prevent future illness rather than to just treat symptoms or disease.

Antihypertensive agents (for high blood pressure), natural marine and animal products (such as fish oil), and lipid-lowering agents (for high cholesterol) are the most common classes of medicines used. The most commonly taken active ingredients were omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), paracetamol, aspirin and glucosamine.

The NPS research found that 30% of Australians over 50 took medicines to lower cholesterol on the day the snapshot was taken, while complementary medicines were used by 46.3% of participants — with women the highest users.

“While this trend towards preventative medicines may have a long-term positive impact on health and quality of life, it also highlights the importance of the ongoing promotion of healthy lifestyle changes,” says Dr Marie Pirotta, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

“In particular, many people may be unaware of the risk of side effects or interactions between prescribed medicines and complementary medicines.”

The study found that doctors recommended 79.3% of all medicines and 93% of conventional medicines, with about one in eight medicines overall first recommended by family, friends or the media. In addition, one in eight medicines purchased by Australians aged 50 and over was purchased from a supermarket, health food store or the internet rather than a pharmacy.

“Family, friends and the media have a big influence over people’s medicine choices, and people are increasingly purchasing medicines outside pharmacies, so it’s more crucial than ever that people speak to their doctor or pharmacist and ask questions about whether a medicine is right for them,” said Dr Weekes.

“These results also highlight the need for people to be medicinewise and have access to the right information to make better choices and decisions about medicines, especially if people are taking medicines without professional advice.”

To find out how to be medicinewise, visit The NPS Medicines List is available to download online or as a free iPhone app from the from the Apple iTunes store.

To read the full article on the study, published in Issue 1, Volume 196 of the Medical Journal of Australia, visit


Independent, evidence-based and not-for-profit, NPS enables better decisions about medicines and medical tests.We are funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing.