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Complementary and Alternative Medicine Used By Broad Age, Demographic Groups

BOSTON, MA--Will the demand for complementary and alternative medicine fade or is it here to stay? While U.S. medical schools are developing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) course work, and managed care organizations are providing some coverage for CAM therapies, little data existed to answer this question. Until now. A new study by Harvard Medical School researchers, looking at trends over the past half-century, suggests that CAM is indeed here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The study, which appears in the August 21 Annals of Internal Medicine, examined trends in the use of 20 different CAMs, covering everything from acupuncture to yoga, among representative sociodemographic groups across the continental U.S. "The findings really dispel two ideas, namely that complementary and alternative medicine is just a passing fad, and that it is used by one particular segment of society," said Ronald Kessler, Harvard Medical School professor of health care policy, who authored the study through the Harvard Medical School Division of Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies and the Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The use of alternative treatments was independent of gender, ethnicity, and level of education. Regional trends and city versus rural differences were also absent. Most of the 20 therapies have steadily increased in popularity since the 1960s, with the largest overall growth rate occurring during the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s.

Data compiled from over 2,000 interviews did show a trend towards the use of these therapies in younger respondents; by age 33, 7 out of 10 post-baby boomers (born 1965-79) had used some type of CAM, compared to 5 out of 10 baby boomers (born 1945-64), and 3 out of 10 pre-baby boomers (born before 1945). However, in all age groups the use of CAMs has steadily increased since the 1950s.

Some individuals reported using alternative therapies for many years. Of those respondents who had tried an alternative therapy, almost 50 percent were still using it 11 to 20 years later. This persistence is consistent with findings in a previous study that suggested most CAM therapies are used--at least in part--as preventative measures or as part of a regular fitness program.

While all therapies showed increased usage over the decades, the study yielded interesting insights into the timing of societal adoption of particular therapies. In the 1960s, four particular therapies increased markedly--commercial diet programs, lifestyle diet therapy, megavitamin therapy, and self-help groups. The 1970s showed increased use of biofeedback, energy healing, herbal medicine, and imagery. During the 1980s, massage and naturopathy increased, while yoga decreased in popularity. The 1990s showed particular increased adoption of aromatherapy, energy healing, herbal medicine, massage, and yoga.

The authors caution that while the data indicates that the demand for alternative medicine will continue and may well grow, their analysis cannot predict dramatic events that may tip prevalence patterns in one direction or another.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the John E. Ferzer Institute, the American Society of Actuaries, Friends of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Foundation, and the J.E. and Z.B. Butler Foundation.

---Harvard Medical School

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