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Complementary and Alternative Medicine: What People Aged 50 and Older Discuss With Their Health Care Providers

Do Americans aged 50 and older discuss the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) with their health care providers? What do they talk about—or why don’t they? To help answer these questions, in October 2010 AARP and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health partnered on a telephone survey. The survey builds on a similar study conducted in 2006.

Use of CAM is widespread. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey, a nationwide Government survey, found that 38% of U.S. adults reported using CAM in the previous 12 months, with the highest rates among people aged 50–59 (44%). The NHIS data also revealed that approximately 42% of adults who used CAM in the past 12 months disclosed their use of CAM to a physician (M.D.) or osteopathic physician (D.O.). Because many adults also use over-the-counter medications, prescription drugs, or other conventional medical approaches to manage their health, communication between patients and health care providers about CAM and conventional therapies is vital to ensuring safe, integrated use of all health care approaches.

Key findings include:

  • Just over half (53%) of people 50 and older reported using CAM at some point in their lives, and nearly as many (47%) reported using it in the past 12 months. Herbal products or dietary supplements were the type of CAM most commonly used, with just over a third (37%) of respondents reporting their use, followed by massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation, and other bodywork, used by around a fifth (22%) of respondents.
  • Women were more likely than men to report using any form of CAM in the past 12 months (51 vs. 43%) as well as two particular types: herbal products or dietary supplements (41 vs. 33%) and massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation, or other bodywork (27 vs. 16%).
  • In most cases, the use of CAM increased with education. Those who had attended or graduated from college were significantly more likely than those who had a high school education or less to use every form of CAM with one exception: Those who graduated from college were not significantly more likely than those with a high school education or less to use naturopathy, acupuncture, or homeopathy.
  • Though relatively few respondents used mind/body practices or alternative medical systems, about twice as many in the younger age group did so. Eleven percent of people aged 50–64 reported using mind/body practices including hypnosis and meditation, compared with 5% of those 65 and older. About 7% of those aged 50–64 reported using naturopathy, acupuncture, or homeopathy, compared with 3% of those aged 65 and older.


AARP commissioned SSRS to perform a telephone survey of 1,013 adults aged 50 and older between October 13 and October 26, 2010.

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