Today, many people are using health care approaches that are not considered to typically be part of conventional medical care. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), these products and practices fall into three categories:
- Complementary practices are used along with conventional medicine—for example, massage after surgery.
- Alternative medical practices are used in place of conventional medicine—for example, herbal supplements instead of prescription medication.
- Integrative health seeks to bring conventional and complementary practices together to treat the whole person—for example, standard stroke treatment along with tai chi.
The NCCIH, which is one of the 27 National Institutes of Health, reports that about half of older adults in the U.S. use these health practices, which include these approaches:
- Nutritional, including special diets, dietary supplements, herbal products and probiotics
- Psychological, such as meditation, music therapy and relaxation practices
- Physical, including acupuncture, massage and chiropractic
- Practices that combine the above components, such as yoga, tai chi, dance therapy and mindful eating.
With the popularity of complementary medicine, more scientific research is underway to determine whether certain practices are beneficial. Studies show that some are not demonstrably effective, though people might benefit because they enjoy the experience. Others, such as the following, have been proven by research to be beneficial:
- Meditation reduces depression and anxiety, improves sleep and even offers cognitive benefits that can even be seen in brain imaging.
- Tai chi and yoga have been found to reduce the risk of falls and depression, sharpen thinking, reduce pain and boost the immune system.
- Massage is routinely recommended for a wide variety of musculoskeletal ailments.
- Certain supplements such as fiber, vitamins and minerals have been studied thoroughly and pronounced beneficial.
However, the alternative medicine field is largely unregulated. Consumers are encouraged to be well-informed when making decisions about practices and products. Many supplements and unlicensed devices may be harmless, though useless. They may have no more effect than to drain your wallet. Others can be dangerous to your health, possibly containing toxic ingredients. And sometimes, alternative medical practices can clash with conventional medical treatment.
Experts caution older patients that to avoid adverse health effects, they should discuss these practices and products with their doctor. For example, some herbal supplements may interact with prescription drugs, making a prescription drug less effective, or causing an overdose. Some hands-on body practices or exercises could be dangerous for people with certain health conditions.
Yet the NCCIH reports that many older patients fail to discuss alternative and complementary practices with their doctor. Perhaps their doctor didn’t ask, or they felt rushed at their appointment, or they just didn’t think it was relevant to share the information. Studies show that some older patients keep quiet about alternative therapies because they fear their doctor will judge them. But your doctor is trained to be able to evaluate the value of a practice—why not take advantage of their expertise?
The NCCIH offers these tips to for your next doctor appointment:
- If you are considering an alternative or complementary therapy, ask your physician about its safety, effectiveness and possible interactions with medications (prescription and non-prescription).
- Tell your doctor about all therapies or treatments you use, including over-the-counter and prescription medicines as well as dietary and herbal supplements.
- When completing patient history forms, be sure to include all therapies and treatments you use. Make a list in advance.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (www.nccih.nih.gov)