For Some, Key to Health Is Mind Over Medicine

At 81, Carmela Hilbert has chronic heart problems and neuropathy in her feet. Yet, she says, in some ways she's never felt better.

"I think a lot of it has to with attitude," Hilbert explains. "I think a lot of it has to do with learning -- with the fact that you never stop trying something new."

The newest thing she's trying is meditation. She walks in a specially built meditation circle called a labyrinth every day near her Bedford, Mass., home.

"You come out of that with a feeling of relaxation and peace that's very helpful," she says.

It also helps alleviate pain and symptoms from her ailments, she adds.

Like Hilbert, millions of senior citizens are frustrated with conventional medicine. In fact, research shows more than 60 percent of adults have turned to non-conventional therapy like meditation, perhaps because 30 percent believe traditional medicine can't help them.

They're flocking to programs offering spiritual wellness -- like meditation, yoga and tai chi.

Frank Rinato, 73, has been practicing tai chi in Brooklyn for 11 years.

"I've had bursitis, arthritis, the gout, and I don't have any of it now," he says.

Ruth Mitchell, 86, practices with Rinato.

"You know, at one time I felt, 'Well, this is my life and that's it,' " she says. "But I feel alive again."

Going Mainstream

None of these therapies is new, but in the past five years mainstream medicine has started giving them scientific attention and support. And insurers are starting to cover the new approaches, looking for ways to contain the rising costs of standard medical treatments.

In 1999, the National Institutes of Health created a Center for Alternative Medicine to study nonconventional treatments. This year, the institute has a $122 million budget.

Dr. Herbert Benson, the president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and a Harvard Medical School associate professor, has studied the body's "relaxation response" for nearly 40 years. He says it's so important because more than 60 percent of visits to the doctor are stress related.

"Thirty-five years ago, mind/body medicine was considered off the radar, flaky," he says. "Now, there are sufficient data to point out that mind/body medicine can be effective in a number of different conditions in which surgeries and medications are ineffective."

Academic researchers have recently found that meditation may provide a broad array of benefits -- everything from relieving pain to fighting the flu. But many of the studies are preliminary. And skeptics warn against seeing these treatments as a panacea.

Richard Sloan, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University says it is fine for patients to pray or meditate if it makes them feel better.

But he adds, "The question is whether there's any evidence that it has any medical benefit, and the answer generally is 'No, it doesn't have any particular medical benefit.' "

Tell that to Hilbert.

"Meditation gives me the energy and the strength to do all the things I do in my life," she says, "and my life is very full."

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