Marijuana and the Elderly: Why It Works

Seniors and Cannabis: Why They're a Match Made in Heaven

Seniors and cannabis might sound wacky, but the act of sharing ganja with your Grandma might not be such a bad idea. There’s a growing curiosity about the potential for cannabis to address both quality and length of life when used among elderly populations, since marijuana is an effective complementary and primary treatment for many prominent age-related health conditions like neuropathy, cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, and even depression.

Conventional therapies, for all their merits, have their limitations — especially when it comes to quality of life —and cannabis may significantly expand the options that older individuals have in treating a variety of health conditions. With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about seniors and cannabis.

What You Need to Know About Medical Marijuana Treatment for Seniors

Treating Peripheral Neuropathy

A recent study published in the Journal of Pain found that, as a painkiller, cannabis was more effective than the placebo for patients with peripheral neuropathy, a condition common among older adults. The minimal dosage, notably, was free of any undesirable effects but was equally as effective as moderate doses, allowing patients to treat their pain without having to get stoned. It’s worth noting that many of the patients involved in the study had not found conventional painkillers to be an effective treatment for neuropathy, underscoring the need for a diversity of treatment options to be made available.

Cannabis for the Comorbidities of Cancer

According to a European paper published in BMJ, nearly 80 percent of cancer cases are diagnosed in individuals 55 or older. Adults 66 and older are 11 times more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the rest of the population. Integrating cannabis into the treatment plan for elderly cancer patients can mitigate common side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. And as an analgesic, cannabis can treat intractable cases of chronic pain without causing negative side effects of its own; opioids, comparatively, can exacerbate symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and fatigue, in addition to other side effects that diminish quality of life.

A Novel Preventative Therapy for Alzheimer’s Disease

While advances in modern medicine have led to decreases in mortality rates for most of the leading causes of death, including cancer, Alzheimer’s is one of the few diseases to have increased significantly in incidence since 2000. It’s clear that there is a great need for novel treatments, and researchers have begun to explore cannabis’s potential in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

An animal study conducted in 2016 found that cannabis inhibited inflammation and neuron death caused by a protein strongly associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These findings suggest that, as a medical treatment, cannabis may slow or halt the deterioration of the brain in patients diagnosed in the early states of Alzheimer’s disease.  

A Replacement for Conventional Antidepressants

Aging populations can experience depression as a result of disability, insomnia, chronic illness, and particularly in the United States, social isolation. Most studies involving marijuana and depression focus in on younger populations, finding an association between major depression and increased marijuana use. However, a 2015 study found that when used in a controlled manner, marijuana might help to reduce depression.  

Studies on seniors and cannabis involving older subjects will have to confirm that marijuana has the potential to alleviate symptoms of depression, but in the meantime, many strains of cannabis purport to be effective in treating depression. Indeed, medical marijuana patients have reported replacing their antidepressant medications with cannabis.

Marijuana Trends and Challenges in Older Populations

On an individual level, marijuana use has become considerably more acceptable and appealing to older populations. As marijuana continues to shed its stigma and as its medicinal qualities receive the attention they deserve, cannabis use has significantly increased among older adults. A survey published last year in Addiction found that cannabis use among adults aged 50 to 64 rose nearly 60 percent between 2006 and 2013, while use among adults 65 and older more than doubled.

Medical marijuana faces some challenges at the institutional level. Because few scientific studies explore the benefits or risks of marijuana use in older subjects, health care providers are not yet able or willing to recommend marijuana as a safe or effective treatment for people in this age group. Elderly individuals who reside in assisted living facilities are on their own if they want to consider medical marijuana as a treatment for their conditions, and, as such, they usually encounter challenges acquiring and using cannabis; most nursing homes have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to their patients using marijuana, even in states where medical marijuana is legal.

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