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Older Women & Complementary & Alternative Medicine

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If you think acupuncture, music therapy and yoga are only for twentysomethings, think again. A 2006 survey of 1,559 people aged 50 and older conducted by the AARP and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) found 63 percent of respondents had used one or more CAM therapies.

The top choices? Massage therapy, chiropractic, spinal manipulation or other bodywork (used by 45 percent of respondents), closely followed by herbal products or dietary supplements (42 percent of respondents). The study also found that most people chose CAM to treat specific conditions or maintain wellness, and 45 percent chose it to supplement conventional medicine.

Other studies analyzing data from the 2002 National Health Interview Survey on 10,572 respondents with cardiovascular disease and 2,474 with diabetes found 36 percent of those with heart disease and 38 percent of those with diabetes had used CAM (excluding prayer) in the previous 12 months.

There's a good reason older people turn to alternative therapies and integrative medicine: Studies suggest such approaches can help with many medical conditions associated with aging. For instance, taking a daily calcium/magnesium/vitamin D supplement can help slow bone loss, preventing falls. Prevent falls as you age, and you prevent one of the major reasons behind disability in the elderly.

The herb saw palmetto has a pretty good track record in improving symptoms of enlarged prostate, with an analysis of 21 clinical trials involving more than 3,000 men finding it worked about as well as the most widely prescribed medication, finasteride (Proscar).

Meanwhile, studies investigating the use of vitamin C hint that it may significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer's in healthy people, likely due to its antioxidant effects. And an analysis of more than a dozen studies on acupuncture finds it works as well if not better than conventional medications at relieving the pain and disability of osteoarthritis—with a far lower likelihood of side effects.

Plus, yoga and tai chi have been linked in studies to everything from reducing blood pressure, strengthening bone and reducing the risk of falls to preventing shingles and improving pain and disability from arthritis.

However, people 50 and older are just as likely as younger people to keep their CAM use from their doctors. This is particularly dangerous in older adults, who are more likely to be taking prescription medications that could interact with herbal remedies or supplements, or vice versa. For instance, vitamin E, garlic supplements and gingko biloba have anticoagulant, or blood thinning, properties; if you're also taking daily aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin), you run the risk of excessive bleeding.
So speak up. Tell your doctor what you're taking, how often and why. Any good doctor/patient relationship should begin and end with good communication.


AARP, NCCAM. Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What People 50 and Older Are Using and Discussing with Their Physicians. AARP. Washington, DC. 2007.

Yeh GY, Davis RB, Phillips RS. Use of complementary therapies in patientswith cardiovascular disease. AmJ Cardiol. Sep 1, 2006;98(5):673-680.

Garrow D, Egede LE. National patterns and correlates of complementary and alternative medicine use in adults with diabetes. J Altern Complement Med. Nov 2006;12(9):895-902.

Rubenstein LZ, Josephson KR. Falls and their prevention in elderly people: what does the evidence show? Med Clin North Am. Sep 2006;90(5):807-824.

Wilt T, Ishani A, Mac Donald R. Serenoa repens for benign prostatic hyperplasia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002(3):CD001423.

Zandi PP, Anthony JC, Khachaturian AS, et al. Reduced Risk of Alzheimer Disease in Users of Antioxidant Vitamin Supplements: The Cache County Study. Arch Neurol. 2004;61(1):82-88.

Ernst E. Complementary or alternative therapies for osteoarthritis. Nat Clin Pract Rheumatol. Feb 2006;2(2):74-80.

Kuramoto AM. Therapeutic benefits of Tai Chi exercise: research review. WMJ. Oct 2006;105(7):42-6.

Luskin FM, Newell KA, Griffith M, et al. A review of mind/body therapies in the treatment of musculoskeletal disorders with implications for the elderly. Altern Ther Health Med. Mar 2000;6(2):46-56.

Luskin FM, Newell KA, Griffith M, et al. A review of mind-body therapies in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Part 1: Implications for the elderly. Altern Ther Health Med. May 1998;4(3):46-61.

© 2007 National Women’s Health Resource Center, Inc. (NWHRC) All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the NWHRC. 1-877-986-9472 (toll-free). On the Web at: www.healthywomen.org.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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