Objectives: Because there are few data describing alternative medicine use in older populations, we analyzed a nationally representative survey to quantify and characterize the use of alternative medicine in people aged 65 and older.
Design: We utilized data collected in a nationally representative, random, telephone survey of adults, measuring use of conventional medical services and use of 20 alternative medicine therapies in the last 12 months.
Participants: A total of 2,055 adults, 311 of whom were aged 65 and older and who constituted our sample of older Americans.
Results: Overall, 30% of people aged 65 and older used at least one alternative medicine modality in the last year compared with 46% of those less than age 65 (P < .001), and 19% of older people saw a provider of alternative medicine within the past year compared with 26% of those less than age 65. The alternative medicine modalities used most commonly by those aged 65 and older were chiropractic (11%), herbal remedies (8%), relaxation techniques (5%), high dose or mega-vitamins (5%), and religious or spiritual healing by others (4%). Older persons with a primary care provider used alternative medicine more frequently (34% vs 7% P < .05) than those with no primary care provider. Patients who saw their physician more frequently were more likely to use alternative medicine (0 visits 7%, 1-2 visits 22%, 3-6 visits 35%, 7 or more visits 44% P < .05). Six percent of older patients were taking both herbs and prescription drugs. Of older patients who used alternative medicine, 57% made no mention of their use of any alternative modality to their doctor.
Conclusions: Thirty percent of Americans aged 65 and older reported using alternative medicine (amounting to 10 million Americans based on extrapolations to census data) and 19% visited an alternative medicine provider (making 63 million visits based on extrapolations to census data) within the past year. The two modalities used most commonly were chiropractic and herbs, both of which may be problematic in older patients. Physicians should ask all patients, including those aged 65 and older, about their use of alternative medicine, and in those aged 65 and older, physicians should ask specific questions about the user of chiropractic and herbal medicine.