While use of home remedies is common among people 65 and older, blacks and Native Americans tend to make much greater use of them than whites, according to a study from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
And the explanation seems to be cultural differences rather than access to health care, economic hardship or health status, said Joseph G. Grzywacz, Ph.D., and colleagues, writing in the January-February issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
"Culturally based beliefs about health and appropriate strategies for maintaining health may provide better explanations for ethnic difference in home remedy use," said Grzywacz, assistant professor of family and community medicine.
The researchers analyzed use of two kinds of home remedies: food-based, including teas, plant extracts and baking soda, and "other," such as over-the- counter creams and ointments, petroleum products and plant-based substances such as aloe. The home remedies were used both for chronic diseases and symptoms of more acute illnesses.
"Ethnic differences in beliefs about the meaning of illness, appropriate approaches for health management and individual responsibility for health may explain why black and Native American elders are more likely to use home remedies than white elders," Grzywacz said.
He noted that other studies of younger adults show that blacks view conventional medical treatments "less favorably" than whites and believe home remedies are a viable form of treatment for minor ailments.
The current results stemmed from a study called ELDER (Evaluating Long-Term Diabetes Management among Elder Rural Adults), which evaluated differences in self-care strategies, including use of home remedies and other complementary and alternative therapies, in elderly adults with diagnosed diabetes. The participants all came from Robeson and Harnett counties, two largely rural counties in North Carolina with a high proportion of ethnic minorities.
"We found that the majority of older adults use some type of home remedy for health purposes," Grzywacz and his colleagues said. Nearly half of the white seniors in ELDER use home remedies. "Home remedy use was substantially greater among elders of ethnic minority groups."
In trying to determine why, the researchers considered other possible factors, such as availability of care, economic hardship and health disparities. When they adjusted for socio-economic inequalities between blacks and white, "ethnic differences in home remedy use became larger rather than smaller."
"Home remedy use is widespread among elder adults regardless of ethnicity, suggesting that older adults find some benefit in these practices and they play an important role in elders' overall strategy for health management," Grzywacz said
"The persistence of ethnic differences in home remedies" after controlling for health disparities and other similar factors "suggest that cultural explanations likely hold more promise for explaining ethnic differences in home remedy use among older adults."
Source: Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center
Explore further: Scholar traces cultural history of obsession with youth