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Does alternative medicine really work?

Created date

October 23rd, 2012
Matt Narrett, M.D., is chief medical officer for EricksonLiving and directs the provision of medical care at all Erickson Living communities. He received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and is board certified in internal medicine and geriatrics. He is coauthor of Old is the New Young, a guide to successful aging (available on The use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has been on the rise, especially in recent years. Almost 30% of older adults in fact now use some form of CAM. The two terms have slightly different meanings: Complementary medicine is usedin conjunctionwith standard medical care, and alternative medicinereplacesstandard medical care. Standard medical care is comprised of medications, treatments, and procedures based on scientific research and generally accepted as safe and effective by the medical community. CAM, on the other hand, is relatively new here in the U.S. and does not yet have a large body of research supporting its safety and effectiveness. What we all really want to know is does any of it really work?

Ongoing research

The good news is that significant research is being conducted to answer that question. Thus far, CAM research results are mixed. While 25 of 32 reviews of acupuncture showed no efficacy, there is increasing evidence that this technique is successful in treating postoperative and chemotherapy-associated nausea. In addition, tai chi has shown some promise in older adults with regard to balance, and one study found it to improve the quality of life and mood of heart-failure patients. On the other hand, gingko biloba, which has sparked a lot of research due to various health claims, has not been shown to improve blood pressure, prevent cancer, or have any positive effects on memory or dementia. The most important thing to know about CAM is that you shouldn t try anything without researching the opportunity and talking to your doctor first. A CAM treatment or supplement may be able to help, but some can be harmful depending on your health conditions or what medications you take. There are a lot of claims out there and products available, and your doctor can help you investigate them and make sure what you want to try will be safe and potentially effective. In good health, Dr. Narrett