Older Chinese Americans use traditional medicine to deal with mental health


NEW BRUNSWICK (Oct. 31, 2019) — Chinese older adults in the United States tend to turn to certain types of traditional Chinese medicine to deal with anxiety and depression, according to a new study by researchers at Rutgers University’s Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research (IFH).

The study is the largest analysis to date of the association between the mental health conditions and traditional Chinese medicine use among older Chinese Americans. Researchers used data from the Population Study of Chinese Elderly (PINE) in Chicago, the most extensive epidemiological cohort study of older Chinese Americans.

“The population of Chinese older adults in the United States is growing and aging. We need to know more about the treatments they use in order to address their mental health needs and improve culturally patient-centered care,” said lead researcher Ying-Yu Chao, an IFH associate faculty member and clinical assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Nursing Division of Nursing Science.

Prior research has found that Chinese Americans are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than other major ethnic groups, but they are less likely to utilize mental health services. These conditions affect quality of life and can lead to physical, emotional, social, and cognitive issues, as well as significantly increase mortality rates and medical costs.

Many Chinese older adults in the United States are foreign-born and face barriers to mental health services, including language, stigma, high costs and access. But many also believe traditional Chinese medicine, which includes modalities such as acupuncture, massage and dietary therapies, herbal products and tai chi, is a holistic solution, while Western medicine takes a symptomatic approach.

Researchers found that older Chinese Americans with anxiety and depression tended to use acupuncture and massage therapy, but not the other traditional modalities. Furthermore, acupuncture and massage therapy were significantly associated with depressive symptoms, but researchers noted only a trend toward use of those modalities for individuals with anxiety.

Researchers concluded that individuals may use acupuncture and massage therapy for relief of physical symptoms caused by anxiety and depression, such as pain, fatigue, tiredness, and gastrointestinal issues, but they may not associate the two.

Chao said more research is needed to understand why older Chinese Americans are or are not using traditional Chinese medicine, and how that differs from other populations.

Read the study here.