Q. I have arthritis that severely limits my ability to do all the things I want to do. I see ads on TV and in magazines for various treatments that are "guaranteed" to help. Is this the same as alternative medicine?
Lucy, La Crescenta
No, they are not the same. "Alternative medicine" is being used today to refer to treatments that have a historical or cultural, rather than a scientific, basis. The American National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine cites examples including naturopathy, chiropractic medicine, herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, homeopathy, acupuncture and nutritional-based therapies.
On the other hand, health fraud is the deceptive marketing of unproven, fraudulent health-related products, treatments or devices. The sellers claim that their products will cure diseases, make us feel better, and look younger. But the only real benefit of these products is to the con artists themselves, who bilk Americans out of $100 billion every year.
Health fraud can damage more than your bank account. You might waste valuable time pursuing useless treatments instead of receiving effective care that could really help you. And some products are not only useless; they can be dangerous. For example, many dietary supplements are produced in unregulated foreign plants with no safety standards or regulatory oversight.
Seniors can be at particular risk of health fraud. Scammers often target people who are at their most vulnerable. They prey on the hopes of those who are experiencing ill health, pain and fear. Seniors are more likely to experience challenging health conditions that modern medicine can't entirely cure … and it's no coincidence that scammers put most of their energy into claims for those very diseases.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers to be aware of these common health fraud types:
•Useless remedies for diseases and health conditions such as cancer, arthritis, diabetes, HIV/AIDS or flu.
• Weight-loss products.
•Unproven diagnostic tests.
• Useless dietary supplements claimed to promote better health.
As you evaluate health advertising and product packaging, here are some "red flags" to look out for:
• Claims that a product is a "cure-all" for a variety of ailments.
• Advertising terms like "scientific breakthrough," "miracle cure" or "ancient remedy."
•A "no-risk" guarantee.
• Statements that claim a product is better because it is "all natural."
• Pressure to "buy now, as supplies are limited."
• A company that recruits you to become a dealer of their product.
•Negative comments using terms like "the medical establishment" or "mainstream medicine."
•Salespeople who call the home repeatedly and try to "befriend" you.
Remember: a glitzy website, an hour-long TV infomercial full of testimonials, or a full-page advertisement, even in a reputable publication, is no guarantee of the value of a health-care product. Speak to your doctor before you spend your money on medical devices or products. And remember that following the advice of a trained, licensed health-care provider is the wisest choice when it comes to making health-care decisions. Scam artists take advantage of our hopes; the best source of a sense of well-being comes from knowing we have made educated choices.
NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, e-mail it to email@example.com or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun