‘Honest’ placebos help without side-effects, expense
Here’s my latest article on McKnight’s Long-Term Care News:
Older residents frequently enter long-term care with multiple medications prescribed for their varying health conditions. In fact, it’s the polypharmacy itself that can bring them to our doors due to harmful medication interactions and symptoms such as dizziness that lead to falls, hospitalizations and the need for increased care.
In long-term care, geriatricians often work to reduce the number of medications their patients receive. A 2011 review in the journal Gerontology suggests that the use of a placebo may be a worthwhile tool in this effort.
Typical purpose of placebos
A placebo is often thought of as a harmless substance used as a control in research to determine the effect of actual medications. In order to be proven effective, the experimental medication must be significantly more beneficial to subjects than the placebo because simply receiving a pill is found to have beneficial effects.
In other words, medical conditions can improve just by thinking that the pill one is taking is going to help, even if it has no medical properties. (This is why I like to read the copy on, say, a bottle of hair conditioner — to enhance its psychological effects … I’m only half-kidding.)
Atypical use of placebos
The studies reviewed in the 2011 Gerontology article consider the placebo not as a control condition but as a substance worthy of study in and of itself, investigating factors that influence its level of effectiveness.
They examined the use of placebos as an analgesic, to address anxiety and depression and for Parkinson’s disease and consistently found a significant reduction in symptoms — especially when paired with verbal suggestions that the placebo will be successful.
In Jo Marchant’s “A Placebo Treatment for Pain” in the New York Times this month, she writes of a 2014 study that found that a placebo was 60% as effective as a pain pill. What’s more, when the actual pain medication was labeled “placebo,” it reached 60% of its usual effectiveness.
Even more remarkably, these results held up when the placebo was honestly labeled as such. Despite knowing that the pill they were taking was a placebo it was still half as effective as the pain medication.
(I find this mind power incredible, so much so I almost ended each of the sentences in this section with an exclamation point!)
Application to seniors
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