Seniors and Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) – A Better Choice?

Did you know that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of individuals 65 years or older is expected to climb to 2 billion worldwide by 2050? There were already close to 605 million in that category as of 2012; in fact, you may be one of them. If not, then more than likely you know someone who is, such as a parent or other family member.

There is no doubt that, in these changing times, definitions are blurring when it comes to “acting your age.” As the popular saying goes: “50 is the new 30 and 70 is the new 50!” Despite the toxic load we are exposed to every day from a myriad of sources, more and more folks who are considered “geriatric” are staying active well into their 80’s and 90’s. There is a reason for this longevity. More older individuals are using natural therapies for health than ever before.

What is CAM?

A recent study published in the Journal of Pharmacy Practice and Research showed that close to 80% of older Americans use some form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). In addition, a 2010 study conducted by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) found that CAM use is rapidly increasing worldwide amongst 50 to 65 year-olds.

CAM is a common acronym given by conventional medicine for the use of other-than-conventional modalities of healing. Since the term was coined by conventional medicine itself, the healing modalities that fall into this category– such as acupuncture, energy medicine, yoga, nutrition and cannabis– are designed (according to conventional science) to be either an “alternative” or a “complement” to the mainstream medicine you would encounter at a typical hospital or doctor’s office.

The National Cancer Institute defines CAM as “medical products and practices that are not part of standard medical care.” Of course, this is just one perspective. What some would callbigstock-Dropper-over-essential-oil-bot-46998682-300x300 “complementary and alternative,” others would call natural or holistic medicine. Many forward-thinking M.D.’s, D.O.’s and RN’s also practice natural medicine in some way. The fact remains, however, that there is a fundamental difference between how practitioners of allopathic and natural medicine view the body and disease.

Conventional or “allopathic” medicine basically sees the body as a series of non-related, mechanical parts and functions. Allopathic doctors treat symptoms (i.e. diseases) as they come up, mostly with surgery and pharmaceutical drugs. They are also not taught to recognize the body as an inherently self-healing organism.

Natural medicine practitioners, on the other hand, see the body in a more “holistic” way. Natural healing practitioners, such as naturopaths, take into account how the body’s various organ systems (and, in some cases, the energetic fields that exist just outside the body) interact together. They see the body as inherently designed to heal; the “self-healing” impulse is literally built in to our genetic code and can be witnessed in a myriad of ways. The basic function of natural medicine (what conventional medicine would call CAM) is to help bring the body back into balance so it can do the work of self-healing it was meant to do.

A great example of how this works can be witnessed with cannabinoid therapy. Cannabis is used to balance the endocannabinoid system which then helps restore balance in the entire body. Restored balance in the body, in turn, places it in a “healing state,” where the healing mechanisms of the parasympathetic nervous system are activated. In this state, immune function enhances, pathogens are targeted at a more robust rate and the body can work on healing at the deepest level. This is a simplistic description of this process, of course, but it proves the point.

Seniors Spend Billions on CAM

Senior Woman Undergoing Chemotherapy In HospitalAmericans in general spend $30 billion dollars a year on Complementary and Alternative Medicine, with older adults making a large percentage of these consumers. With an average of close to $600 per individual per year spent on CAM, what exactly are we spending our money on? Here is a rundown of the most popular CAM categories, according to a recent study conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH):

Visits to natural practitioners. According to the NCCIH, Americans in general spend the most of their CAM dollars on visits to natural professionals. This covers a wide range of modalities, including naturopaths, homeopaths, massage therapists, ayurvedic practitioners, chiropractors, nutritionists, doctors of oriental medicine (i.e. acupuncturists) and energy workers.

Although the study did not state specifically, it is safe to say that visits to the growing number of integrative M.D.s and R.N.s can fall into this category as well. The number of patients seeking out forward-thinking integrative or “functional” doctors is growing especially since an increasing number of insurance companies are now beginning to include such professionals in their plans. Public health clinics in states such as New Mexico are beginning to add functional medicine doctors to their staff as well.

Natural product supplements. Americans, including seniors, also spend a significant amount ($14.7 billion) on what they describe as “natural product supplements.” This includes vitamins, minerals, essential oils and specific herbal formulas. Conventional medicine considers nutritional changes to combat specific chronic diseases—consuming bone broth and cutting out gluten for those with IBS, for example– as part of CAM as well. It is safe to assume that these purchases were not included in the NCCIH report, however. If they were, the bottom line in this category would be significantly higher.

“I was a GERD/acid reflux sufferer for years,” says Kat F., a senior living in Vista, California. “I began to double and triple up on probiotics and I went gluten free. Then I started a bonebeginners guide to medical marijuana broth regime. My gut is now sealed and my thinking has become more calm and clear.”

Kat’s husband Ron also suffered from gastro-intestinal as well as nutrient absorption and neurological issues for years, in part as the result of a car accident when he was young. He claims that bone broth has helped him on all levels. Both Kat and her husband are self-taught when it comes to CAM modalities. Like millions of others, they read books, listen to shows and consult with friends and the occasional natural healing professional to discover what works best for them.

Of course, cannabis purchases should be included in this category as well, and seniors are a defining force in the movement towards medical legalization. According to a 2015 article in the popular magazine Money, more and more individuals in their later years are moving to states where medical marijuana is available.

“A lot of the things marijuana is best at are conditions which become more of an issue as you get older,” says Taylor West of the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association. “Chronic pain, inflammation, insomnia, loss of appetite: All of those things are widespread among seniors.”

Self-Care Approaches. Finally, Americans in general spend approximately $3 billion dollars a year in “self-care.” This could include books on nutrition (similar to the ones that Kat and Ron purchased to learn about dietary changes), mind-body programs, psychologically-based self-help courses, CDs and DVDs on meditation techniques, tai chi and yoga classes and specific devices such as PEMF (Pulsed Electro Magnetic Field) machines.

Instructor performing yoga with seniors during sports classInvesting in education is a must-do for seniors and younger individuals alike. Just like anyone who wants to explore options for better health outside of the traditional paradigm, seniors are discovering that preventative self-care first begins with knowledge.

“I had to take my health in my own hands,” reflects Florence P. of San Diego, California, a senior who used to use opiates to combat the pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia before turning to cannabis, acupuncture, and deep breathing techniques. “I think I was relying on my doctor too much to tell me what to do. At one point, I realized that ultimately I am responsible for my health, and no one else.”

Florence is now opiate free and has not had a bout of fibromyalgia in three years. She continues to see an acupuncturist at least once a month and uses deep breathing and cannabis whenever she feels stress. She also practices tai chi and has recently begun using a PEMF device with great results.

A Paradigm Shift in Medicine? Seniors are Leading the Way!

It is an exciting time for health in America and the world. Since older individuals are the largest consumer base out there which utilizes medical care of any kind, they are paving the way towards what could soon be a radical paradigm shift away from reliance on toxic drugs and towards a more holistic view of how to maintain vibrant health.

“What we have now is a ‘sick care’ system that is reactive to problems,” says Chancellor Emeritus of Duke School of Medicine Dr. Ralph Snyderman, MD, regarding the current system.

If consumer spending trends are any indication, a growing number of seniors in particular are simply not willing to wait for disease to occur. By embracing CAM and its many modalities as an integral part of their overall health routine, they are setting the example for being pro-active instead of reactive when it comes to their health.

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