A team at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine carried out a survey on 20 types of complementary and alternative medicine, including use of herbs, vitamins and special diets.
They found that the middle-age adults are more likely than either young adults or older adults to use CAM for prevention rather than for treatment of specific conditions.
The study is said to provide the first estimates of notable age-related differences in whether CAM is used to treat an existing health condition or for illness prevention and health promotion.
"Midlife adults entered adulthood at a time of more widespread use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) in the population and when public health policy was shifting attention toward individual responsibility for health and health promotion," write Joseph Grzywacz and his colleagues in the October issue of the Journal of Aging and Health.
"Current use of CAM among adults was likely shaped by the relative availability of CAM and prevailing public health policies in place when adults began making their own health-related decisions."
Grzywacz, assistant professor of family and community medicine, said the researchers got their results from data for 31,044 people who participated in the 2002 National Health Interview Survey. The survey is a national sample of Americans that has been conducted annually since 1957 by the National Center of Health Statistics, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The different types of complementary and alternative medicine were grouped into four categories: alternative medical systems, such as acupuncture, homeopathy and naturopathy; biologically based therapies, such as chelation therapy, folk medicine, herb use, special diets, or megavitamins; manipulative and body-based methods, such as chiropractic or massage; and mind-body interventions such as relaxation techniques (meditation), movement therapies (yoga) and healing rituals.
In each case, the survey asked participants whether they used it for treatment, for prevention, for both, or not at all.
"Some types of complementary and alternative medicine, such as alternative medicine systems, are used primarily for treating existing conditions," Grzywacz said.
"Others, such as mind-body interventions are used primarily for illness prevention and health promotion."
But the biologically based therapies are used almost equally for treatment and prevention.