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Aging Baby Boomers & Doctors Need to Discuss Supplements

More than one third of people aged 50 and older have used supplements in the past 12 months. Yet, two-thirds had not discussed their use with their health care provider.

The latest information is based on a telephone survey that AARP conducted in October 2010 in partnership with the National Center for Complementary Medicine (NCAM) at the National Institutes of Health.

The use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), which includes nutritional supplements, meditation, chiropractic care, acupuncture and yoga, is widespread especially among people 50-59 years. In this survey, the AARP was interested in learning more about the use of CAM among “primature” Americans and the role that health care providers play.

Some key findings from the survey included:


  • Women than men were more likely to report CAM use; CAM use increased with education
  • 47% used CAM in the past 12 months
  • 37% used a herbal product or dietary supplement
  • 22% used massage therapy, chiropractic manipulation or other body work

CAM Use by Age

  • CAM use peaks at age 50-59 years where 44.1% report using in the past 12 months
  • CAM is used by over a third of people aged 30-39 years, 40-49 years and 60-69 years

Reasons for CAM Use

  • More than three-quarters of respondents indicated CAM use to prevent illness/or general health and to help reduce pain/treat painful condition.
  • More than 50 percent of people over 50 use CAM to treat a specific health condition and to supplement conventional medicine.

Discussing CAM with Health Care Provider

  • Two thirds of people over 50 do not discuss their use of CAM with their health care provider. However, those who use CAM were more likely (58%) to discuss their use with their health care provider.
  • Women were more likely than men to discuss CAM use with their doctor.
  • Those with higher levels of education (some college/college educated) were more likely to discuss CAM use with their physician than those with a high school education.

Types of Health Care Providers CAM Discussed With

  • People aged 50 and older were more likely to have discussed CAM with their physician than any other healthcare provider (nurse, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, pharmacist, chiropractor, physical therapist).

Who Raises the Topic of CAM

  • If the topic of CAM is raised, 55% of the time the patient brings up the topic; only 26% of the time a health care provider brings up CAM.

Topics Discussed

  • Key areas that are discussed when the topic of CAM is raised includes interactions between CAM and medications or treatments; advice on whether to pursue CAM treatments, the effectiveness of CAM therapies; use and the safety of CAM therapies.

Why CAM is Not Discussed

  • The two main reasons why CAM was not discussed is because the health care provider never asks or the patient did not know to bring the topic up.
  • Those with less education were more likely to believe that the health care provider would be dismissive if the topic was brought up or were not comfortable discussing the topic.

Primary Sources of Information

  • People over 50 get their information on CAM from a variety of sources including family/friends (26%), the internet (14%), physician (13%), publications (13%) and radio/tv (7%).

Use of Prescription Medications

  • 77% of participants who have used CAM in the past 12 months reported taking one or more prescription medications.

The fact that respondents are the primary initiators of a discussion about CAM or are not talking to their health care providers because they are not asked or do not know they should remains largely unchanged since 2006 when a similar study was conducted.

The study authors concluded, “Thus, the need continues to educate consumers and health care providers about the importance of this dialogue and provide tools and strategies to facilitate this conversation.”

The Bottom Line

When visiting with a health care professional, it is important to have a detailed list of all the prescription medications and nutritional supplements you are currently taking. Whether you write the information down or put it in your I-Phone doesn’t matter. You want to be sure that you’re giving your health care provider with accurate information so you can receive the best care.

Whether you are a patient or a health care provider, we encourage you to better educate yourself about nutritional supplements. Just be careful where you obtain your information. Some of the best sites are those that government sponsored (CDC, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health & Human Services, FDA) or are affiliated with a non-profit organization (American Heart Association, American Cancer Society).

Of course, in our Wellness Blog, we try to bring you objective health and wellness information so that you can make intelligent choices.

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