Officials involved in pilot schemes say encouraging older people to be more active and sociable improves health and reduces frailty – keeping pensioners independent for longer.
Simon Stevens, head of the NHS, last night urged every GP to consider prescribing lifestyle changes instead of automatically turning to medication.
Research shows half of pensioners now take at least five drugs a day – with levels quadrupling in two decades. The numbers of people taking antidepressants has more than doubled in the last 10 years, while reliance on common painkillers has increased by 40 per cent.
Mr Stevens told the Daily Telegraph: “Rather than ‘a pill for every ill’, social prescribing is a new way of helping certain people get better and stay healthy.
“Family doctors tell us the best help they offer some patients is connecting them with local sports, arts and voluntary organisations.
“For people who are stressed or depressed, who have chronic pain, or with other long term health problems, social prescribing is often worth trying either in place of drugs or alongside other usual care,” he said.
“It would be good to see all GPs considering whether their patients might benefit.”
One in five family doctors have referred patients for some activities, with 40 per cent keen to do so, research suggests.
In Halton in Merseyside, GPs offer gardening, Nordic walking and tango dancing on prescription, along with confidence classes and stress management.
NHS services across the North West have backed reading groups as a route to help those with depression, while a “Green Dreams” scheme led by GPs in East Lancashire has 40 GPs referring patients to take part in voluntary work in outdoor gardens. Around 27 per cent of patients reported a benefit to their mental or physical health, with a 20 per cent drop in GP appointments, research found.
Several areas have begun referring patients for charity work, including a scheme at the Imperial War Museum which offers “volunteering for veterans”.
GPs in Cumbria are among those offering exercise on prescription, with others offering arts on prescription, fishing clubs and knitting groups.
Health officials said the rollout of such schemes across the country could prove “transformational” in preventing a slide into ill-health on retirement, amid concern that much of Britain’s increasing life expectancy is spent in frailty.
Bev Taylor, leader of NHS England’s social prescribing programme, said: “We are working to embed social prescribing across the NHS.
“For us, what we are seeing around the country is a fantastic movement.”
She said every area should create a “connector service” linking family doctors to such groups, with all GPs in Gloucestershire, Leeds and South Yorkshire now offered access to the schemes.
“It gives people time and works on what really matters to them,” she said.
“Really significantly for us, it is reducing pressure on the NHS and we think social care,” she said.