Tip Sheets

Baby boomers opting for alternative health care

Phyllis Hanlon
Phyllis Hanlon

By Phyllis Hanlon

As of July 1, 2011, baby boomers in the U.S. numbered 41.4 million, representing 13.3 percent of the population. By 2060, that figure is expected to skyrocket to 92 million. This generation has exerted significant influence on the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of life and now, as it moves into and beyond the 65-year mark, is targeting health care.

The average 65-year old American is diagnosed with multiple medical issues that may include hypertension, arthritis, heart disease, cancer and diabetes, according to an infographic assembled by Concordia University. While many boomers still rely on traditional Western medicine, a greater number are looking for complementary and alternative solutions to address these issues.

For instance, between 1997 and 2007, the number of older Americans who turned to massage to relieve stress, arthritis symptoms, sinus problems, fatigue, respiratory ailments and increase mobility issues due to illness, injury and aging has tripled, according to a consumer survey conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC).

And clinical research trials support massage for its medical benefits. A study out of Nagoya, Japan found that complete decongestive therapy (CDT), a form of massage, was beneficial in treating lymphedema, a common adverse effect in women treated for breast cancer. In another survey conducted by ORC International, 50 percent of respondents noted their doctors encouraged massage and 61 percent recommended this alternative treatment.

Yoga has been found to reduce stress as well as the risk for developing some chronic conditions, such as heart disease and high blood pressure. The American Senior Fitness Association (SFA) cited an IDEA Fitness Programs Report that found yoga programs grew more than any other fitness program between 2002 and 2009. In its 2013 report, IDEA noted that older adults comprise 90 percent of gym memberships and yoga is the #1 mind-body programming trend.

Acupuncture has also yielded positive results in controlled clinical trials for age-related ailments, including low back, neck and knee pain, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis and adverse reactions from radiation and/or chemotherapy treatment. In some cases, acupuncture effectively replaced prescription medication.

Speaking of medications, as people age, they develop more medical conditions and their medicine chest shelves sag with a growing number of medications. Boomers who prefer to limit the number of pharmaceutical agents they ingest are opting for herbal medicine.

Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers a comprehensive look at herbal medicine, aka botanicals or phytotherapy. The site provides almost everything you’ve ever wanted to know about herbal medicine. An overview gives some general information and a searchable list offers details regarding the herb, what condition it treats, side effects and cautions for use. Additionally, research findings from credible national organizations along with videos and articles from peer-reviewed journals help guide boomers in making wise decisions regarding herbal medicine.

In addition to switching to herbal medicines or including them in a traditional regimen, some individuals are taking a closer look at what they eat. While natural and organic foods consume a bigger bite of our shopping dollars, raw food diets are gaining some ground. WebMD offers a detailed explanation of a raw food diet along with pros and cons and cautions.

Stress can cause or exacerbate physical issues so it’s no surprise that since 1979 more than 20,000 individuals have completed the program at the renowned Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. reported that meditation has positive effects on the brain, the immune system and on those undergoing bone marrow transplantation and promotes healthy emotional expression while under stress.

Finding qualified alternative medicine practitioners posed a challenge in the past. But in 1999, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) launched the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) project in an effort to bring this discipline into medical training. More than 50 U.S. and Canadian medical schools and teaching hospitals now include CAM in their curricula.

Unfortunately, this growing trend toward alternative therapies comes with a hefty price tag. A 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that adults in the U.S. spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket for alternative and complementary therapies. Sadly, Medicare – which will become the baby boomer’s primary insurance – does not cover alternative and complementary therapies.

But advocacy efforts are underway to add acupuncture to Medicare coverage. Massage may be covered if prescribed by a chiropractor or osteopath. And you may be in luck if your gym holds yoga sessions, since some insurers will pay part of your annual membership fee.

Story ideas

What does the research say when it comes to the effectiveness of treating cancer with massage, aromatherapy, acupuncture, yoga, meditation and/or herbs?

What are the benefits and drawbacks of a raw food diet? Which foods are safe to eat without cooking?

Who are the leading proponents of alternative therapies? A profile that includes their credentials, published research and discoveries would make for interesting reading.

Some individuals espouse the health benefits of a regular colon cleanse. But exactly what is this? What are the dangers associated with a colon cleanse? How can a person benefit from this type of detoxification and how often can this safely be done? What other steps can be taken to enhance the benefits? What are the contraindications?

How might herbal medicine interact with traditional medicine? What should you tell your primary care physician, alternative medicine practitioner and/or pharmacist to ensure your safety?

What is a naturopath or osteopath and why would someone choose one instead of a traditional medical physician? Does this type of practitioner accept insurance? Which insurers cover naturopaths and/or osteopaths?

How can a person find a qualified alternative practitioner? What credentials should an individual look for in an alternative practitioner, i.e., herbalist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, massage therapist, naturopath, yoga teacher?

Although there are four basic types of massage, subsets number in the hundreds. Many massage therapists develop their own techniques, which they then market to the public. Explore some of these modalities, examining their efficacy, whether their claims are research or anecdotally based, how the technique is performed, for which physical illnesses they are designed, risks involved and contraindications.

Track the various CAM therapies to find out which ones an insurance company and/or Medicare will cover. Advocacy efforts are underway to convince Medicare to cover acupuncture; report on the progress.

How do you convince your traditional practitioner to collaborate with an acupuncturist, herbalist or other alternative medicine specialist?

Write a roundup of the states (or counties within a state) with the most alternative medicine options. Look at licensed massage practices, yoga studios, meditation programs or acupuncturists.

Select an age-related medical condition (e.g., pulmonary heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, hearing loss, irritable bowel syndrome) and one of the CAM therapies and present an overview of how the treatment alleviates symptoms, its risks and benefits, the clinical research to back up claims, and contraindications.

Contact one of the alternative therapy organizations and solicit personal stories. Use these as a basis for a larger story on the particular therapy. If you can find two people with opposite experiences, you can offer a more comprehensive overview.

What effect might the Affordable Care Act have on coverage of alternative therapies?

How does cultural background or ethnicity impact a person’s willingness to participate in an alternative medicine regimen?

Additional sources

American Association of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine

American Association of Naturopathic Physicians

American Herbalists Guild

American Holistic Medical Association                                

American Massage Therapy Association

American Osteopathic Association

Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals

The Chopra Center

The International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy

Nutrition Business Journal

Organic Consumers Association

Touch Research Institute

WebMD CAM Overview

Yoga Alliance

Phyllis Hanlon is an independent writer specializing in topics that include business; alternative, medical, mental and respiratory health; spirituality; business and individual profiles.