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Elderly people commonly use herbs or vitamin-mineral supplements, but use varies by ethnicity

The use of herbs and vitamin-mineral supplements is common among the elderly and varies by ethnicity, according to a study supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS11618). Elderly people using these complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies often don't mention it to their physicians, and physicians often don't ask about CAM use. This undisclosed use of CAM is particularly risky for elderly people who are taking multiple medications. Elderly people usually have an age-related decline in drug metabolism, making them very vulnerable to adverse interactions between drugs the doctor prescribes and herbs they are using. Clinicians should routinely ask elderly patients about their use of herbs and vitamin-mineral supplements, suggest the researchers who conducted the study.

The researchers used in-home interviews in 1997 and 1998 to assess medication and herbal and supplement use among 125 community-dwelling whites, 112 blacks, and 128 Hispanics age 77 years and older. Nearly half (47 percent) of the elderly men and women used CAM, similar to that reported in other studies. About 13 percent of whites, 16 percent of blacks, and 5 percent of Hispanics used herbs.

The most commonly used herbs were garlic, Ginkgo biloba, saw palmetto, and vinegar. Use of vitamin-mineral supplements, alone or combined with herbs, also varied by ethnicity, with use by 54 percent of whites, 31 percent of blacks, and 38 percent of Hispanics. Having two or more visits to a physician in the past year was significantly associated with use of vitamin-mineral supplements, suggesting that elderly people using CAM still use conventional medicine.

See "Ethnic differences in herb and vitamin/mineral use in the elderly," by Mukaila A. Raji, M.D., M.Sc., Yong-Fang Kuo, Ph.D., Soham Al Snih, M.D., and others, in the June 2005 Annals of Pharmacotherapy 39, pp. 1019-1023.

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