Even though older adults generally have poorer health, middle-aged adults are most likely to turn to complementary and alternative medicine, a new study shows. The study also found that adults of different races or ethnic backgrounds use these self-care methods in similar proportions.
“You’d expect that older adults and ethnic minorities would be the greatest users of complementary and alternative medicine because they tend to have more illness and relatively less money and often hold different beliefs about medicine. But, in fact, they don’t,” said lead author and sociologist Joseph Grzywacz, Ph.D.
The current study included data on 30,785 adults from a national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants, with an average age of 45, were about evenly divided between men and women. About 22 percent were African-American or Hispanic, while 4 percent were non-Hispanic Asians.
People were asked if they had used any of 28 complementary or alternative therapies in the past year. Researchers organized these therapies into six categories: alternative medical systems, biologically based therapies, body-based methods, mind-body interventions, energy therapies and self-prayer.
Researchers also asked participants whether they had any ailments such as bodily pain, chronic conditions or difficulty performing everyday activities due to illness.
Grzywacz and colleagues found that self-prayer, biologically based therapies, and mind-body interventions were used more frequently than other forms of complementary and alternative medicine.
Middle-aged people reported using complementary and alternative therapies more often than either older or younger people. Older participants were the least likely to use these forms of medicine, with the exception of self-prayer, which was most commonly used by those 65 years and older.
Although there were no significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in how individuals used complementary or alternative medicine, Grzywacz said this may be related to the types of questions posed: “[It] could simply be that we didn’t measure the more culturally appropriate kinds of complementary and alternative practices that different ethnic groups may be using.”
Grzywacz suggested that older adults may use these forms of treatment less because they are less likely to have been exposed to them when younger. He said it’s possible that older adults perceive bodily ailments as normal signs of aging that don’t necessarily require treatment. Conversely, middle-aged and younger participants may be more likely to seek any treatments that may improve their health.
Andrew London, Ph.D., from the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse University, takes those speculations one step further. The results that show middle-aged adults as most likely to use complementary and alternative medicine could in part be a reflection of baby boomers’ approach to health, he said. “The baby boomer generation was countercultural. They questioned authority — and medicine is a form of authority.”
This study, by researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, appears in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
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