Alternative medicine is now a $30 billion industry. But does it work?

Report finds that 59 million Americans use complementary medicine.

Alternative medicine is big business in the U.S. A new report found that Americans spent more than $30 billion on alternative therapies in 2015. That includes treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture as well as supplements, yoga and meditation.

The report, released jointly by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 59 million Americans sought out some type of alternative therapy. Most of the alternative therapies are being used by adults, not children, the researchers found. Of the $30.2 billion, about $28 billion was spent on adults, compared to $1.9 billion for children.

Researchers estimated that one out of five Americans spent money on at least one type of alternative therapy, which could include practices such as Ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic manipulation, energy healing therapy, tai chi, hypnosis, naturopathy, progressive relaxation and massage therapy.

Overall, spending on alternative remedies amounted to just around 9 percent of out-of-pocket healthcare expenditures. But the report found that Americans with lower incomes were shelling out more of their income proportionally than their more affluent peers. Families making less than $25,000 per year spent around $314 per person on complementary medicine and $389 per person on natural supplements. Families earning more than $100,000 per year spent an average of $518 per person on alternative treatments and $377 each on supplements.

While there have been studies confirming the therapeutic benefits of some treatments — such as acupuncture and yoga — other forms of complementary medicine, namely homeopathy, guided imagery, energy healing and some natural supplements have faced severe scrutiny for the lack of scientific data to support their use.

Yet despite this lack of data, the alternative medicine industry is continuing to grow in the U.S. And according to researchers, this confirms the need for more research into to ensure that the products and treatment options offered are safe.

Credit: Jenn Savedge

Anti-aging pill could allow everyone to live over 120 years old

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León famously journeyed to the Americas in search of the Fountain of Youth. If he were still alive today, he might have been able to simply visit his pharmacist instead.

A potential anti-aging drug that is already commercially available for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, called metformin, is soon set to begin clinical trials to see if it can also expand the human life span, reports the Express.

Initial tests on some animals, such as one study of the drug’s effects on worms, suggest that humans could live healthily well into their 120s if the effects are shown to be similar. Metformin could literally be a miracle drug– the Fountain of Youth in pill form. It could change medicine in a way not seen since the discovery of antibiotics. That is, assuming the trials are a success.

Early optimism is high. Since metformin is commercially available for the treatment of diabetes, several extensive studies about its effects are already available; the hype is not merely based on a simple worm study. For instance, last year a study of more than 180,000 people showed that those being treated for diabetes with metformin lived longer than a healthy control sample. That is worth reiterating: Patients being treated for diabetes lived longer than otherwise healthy people.

Other research has shown that metformin could also help to directly treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and even cancer.

“I have been doing research into aging for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-aging drug would have been thought inconceivable,” said Gordon Lithgow of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California. “But there is every reason to believe it’s possible.”

The clinical trial is called Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME), and it will be conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Researchers are looking for 3,000 people in their 70s and 80s who either have or are at risk of having major diseases, and the trial should last from 5 to 7 years.

The drug has already been in use for over 60 years for diabetes patients, so scientists have a pretty good idea of how exactly it works. For instance, metformin is known to make our cells better oxygenated, and its easy to imagine how better oxygenated cells can have a positive effect on the body.

“We lower the risk of heart disease, somebody lives long enough to get cancer. If we reduce the risk of cancer, somebody lives long enough to get Alzheimer’s disease. We are suggesting that the time has arrived to attack them all by going after the biological process of aging,” said Stuart Jay Olshansky, one of the researchers involved in the project.

If all goes well, then age 70 could soon become the new 50. Age 100 could be the new 80, and so on. Better yet, we can age in a healthier fashion, free from many of the debilitating diseases that make living to older ages undesirable. It won’t be an immortality pill, but it might be the next closest thing.

credit: Bryan Nelson