Nearly three out of every four adults over age 50 use some kind of alternative medicine, such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, according to a new study.
While previous research has been limited, this appears to be a higher rate than occurs within the general population, said Gong-Soog Hong, co-author of the study and professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University.
This study found that 71 percent of older adults used some form of alternative medicine in 2000. A study done in 2002, found a lower rate -- about 62 percent – among all adults.
“The percentage of older adults who used alternative medicine was higher than I expected,” Hong said.
“Many types of alternative medicine have not been tested for safety and effectiveness, and yet a large majority of older adults are using them. This tells us there is a serious need for more consumer education.”
Hong conducted the study with Catherine Montalto, associate professor, and Vibha Bhargava, a graduate student, both in consumer sciences at Ohio State. They presented their research April 9 in Columbus at the annual meeting of the American Council on Consumer Interests.
The researchers used data from the 2000 Health and Retirement Survey, conducted by the University of Michigan and funded mainly by the National Institute on Aging. The survey included 848 respondents aged 50 and over.
The survey asked about the use of six types of alternative medicine: chiropractor, acupuncture, massage therapy, breathing exercises, herbal medicine, and meditation.
The most commonly used form of alternative medicine was chiropractor, which about 43 percent of respondents had used. Acupuncture was the least used.
Some of the results will need more research to explain, Hong said.
For example, the findings showed Blacks, widows, and more religious people all tended to use alternative medicine more often than did other older adults.
Other results were more readily understandable.
Respondents were more likely to use alternative medicine if they said they were in poor health and if they reported more problems with daily activities, such as carrying groceries, eating or bathing.
Of those who described their health as poor, 65 percent said they used some form of alternative medicine they considered preventive or curative – a higher percentage than among any other group. And about 63 percent of respondents who said they were not satisfied with their health care also tried alternative therapies classified as preventive or curative.
“Older adults tend to have more chronic illnesses, and conventional medicine doesn’t always solve their problems,” Hong said.
The aches and pains that often come with age may also send more older adults to search for different kinds of treatments.
“Treatment of chronic pain is very difficult,” she said. “People who are living with pain will try everything possible to alleviate it. Those taking a holistic approach toward life may try something else such as alternative medicine.”
However, the exact reasons why these older adults used alternative medicine is not known from this research and needs further study, Hong said. The fact that those who were less satisfied with their health care were more likely to use alternative medicine does suggest some people have issues with the current state of conventional health care.
Hong said the medical establishment has begun studying alternative medicine and has begun to accept some forms of non-traditional medicine. But more study needs to be done before they are generally accepted.
“Many people are using herbal medicines or massage therapy or other treatments based on what they read in popular magazines or see on television,” Hong said.
“More scientific research is needed to examine the safety and effectiveness of alternative medicines, especially about possible interaction effects when they are used along with prescription drugs.”
Hong and her colleagues are working on a new study that will take a more comprehensive look at what alternative medicines people are using and how often they are using them.
“Alternative medicine provides an important option in response to the need for health care in the United States,” Hong said. “We need to know more about who is using alternative medicine and ensuring that they are educated about the medicines and therapies they are using.”