The charity Age Concern has called for an urgent investigation into the prescription of sedative and anti-psychotic drugs.
The call comes as new figures show that the number of prescriptions for the newer types of these drugs given to elderly patients increased by over 70% in a year.
There is concern that the drugs are being inappropriately used to control 'difficult' patients.
The statistics were obtained by the Liberal Democrat spokesman for older people Paul Burstow.
In 1999 there were 252,700 prescriptions for people over 60 rising to 428,800 in 2000.
Over the same period prescribing to children under 16 rose by 49% and prescribing to 16-59 year olds rose by 38%.
In the space of one year more than one in three health authorities have recorded a rise in prescribing of over 50%.
Befordshire biggestThe biggest increase was in Bedfordshire Health Authority where there was a 119% rise in prescribing.
In 1997 the Royal College of Physicians drew attention to the mass prescribing of sedative drugs to elderly people by some residential and nursing homes to keep them quite and easier to manage.
The college's report found that there had been a 50% increase in prescribing of drugs to older people over the previous decade.
Research by the Alzheimer's Society has found that as many as one in five admissions to hospital of the elderly results from misuse of medicines and that 54% of prescriptions of anti-psychotic drugs in care homes were wrongly prescribed.
Very frighteningMr Burstow said: "These figures are very frightening. Older people are the victims of a chemical cosh.
"With a chronic shortage of specialist staff to support older people with dementia and other menta health problems these figures show that care homes are turning to a chemical cocktail of drugs to keep people quite and easier to manage.
"Over medication can cause premature death and it denies older people their dignity, turning them into zombies."
Mr Burstow called for new prescribing guidelines, and an extra investment in staff training.
UN International Narcotics Control Board warned earlier this year that developed countries are using too many prescription drugs.
A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Physicians said: "We're deeply disappointed that the situation is worse than when we did our report a few years ago.
"Much more needs to be done to protect elderly patients from being prescribed inappropriate drugs - the Department of Health should start a review of national prescribing guidelines for older people."
Age Concern said an investigation into the reasons for the increase should focus on concerns that this increase in prescribing may be linked to under funding and short staffing in care homes.
A spokeswoman said: "We would be extremely worried if this were to be found as it would have very serious implications for the quality of older people's lives."
Professor Gary Ford, a geriatrician at Newcastle University, said it was possible that the increase in prescriptions for atypical drugs was simply down to more doctors switching from the old-style alternatives.
Health Minister Jacqui Smith said that the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) is expected to issue guidance on the use of these drugs in December.