The public discussion surrounding medical cannabis has shifted dramatically in the last decade. As of 2019, 29 of 50 US states have legalized some form of medical cannabis, and the demographics of cannabis users have shifted in unexpected ways. Cannabis use among seniors is rising, and it has been for several years. Seniors can experience several therapeutic benefits from medical cannabis, but accessibility issues and lingering stigmas may be preventing some seniors from accessing helpful cannabis products.
Increased Cannabis Use Among Seniors
In June of 2019, CNBC reported that cannabis use among senior citizens has increased more than tenfold in just over a decade. In 2007, only about .3% of seniors over the age of 65 surveyed reported cannabis use. In 2017, the percentage jumped to 3.7%, and nearly 10% of adults surveyed between the ages of 60 and 64 reported consuming cannabis for medical reasons, a jump from less than 2% a decade earlier.
Attitudes toward medical cannabis have shifted in recent years, but many older adults still have difficulty obtaining medical cannabis. Some of these individuals struggle to find doctors willing and able to prescribe medical cannabis, while the lingering stigma of marijuana use hinders others. Some older adults are too uncomfortable with the topic to discuss it with their doctors and others haven’t researched it enough to decide whether to even ask about it.
Why Are Seniors Using More Cannabis?
Older adults generally face more medical complications than younger people, and many have degenerative long-term illnesses that entail difficult and unpleasant treatments. Some older adults struggle with independent living and require constant personal care. Ultimately, life can be stressful for many senior citizens, and the benefits of medical cannabis essentially addresses all the most common issues many seniors face in regard to their health.
1. Cannabis Aids Sleep
One of the most commonly cited reasons for cannabis use among seniors is sleep assistance. Many older adults, especially those who live in nursing homes with other patients nearby, struggle with sleep. Other patients nearby may make noise due to dementia or other medical conditions, and the din of living in a nursing home where people are constantly milling around can make it difficult for some seniors to get adequate rest and genuinely restful sleep.
Cannabis is a very effective sleep aid, relaxing the mind and body and encouraging deeper relaxation. Many older adults find that edible cannabis products are especially effective at assisting sleep while posing minimal adverse side effects. Seniors who use pharmaceutical sleep aids often complain of feeling groggy and disoriented the following day, and cannabis offers an effective alternative without the “hangover” the next day.
2. Cannabis Can Relieve Pain Symptoms
A recent study from the Dent Neurological Institute in Buffalo, New York reported that cannabis appears to be highly effective at treating pain symptoms in older adults and may be a viable alternative to opioid-based pain medications. The study reported that two-thirds of participants who started using medical cannabis reported a decrease in pain symptoms. Another third reported that medical cannabis had curbed their use of opioid medications. While the study did rely on self-reporting and the placebo effect could have potentially influenced reported results for some participants, almost 70% of participants reported some level of symptom relief.
After adjusting dosages, only about 20% of participants reported adverse side effects from their medical cannabis use, and only 3% of participants stopped taking cannabis due to side effects. About 32% of the participants in the study successfully lowered their opioid consumption.
3. Cannabis Can Ease Behavioral Symptoms of Dementia
More than six million Americans currently live with some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease represents roughly 70% of all dementia patients in the US according to the Institute for Dementia Research & Prevention. Dementia is a degenerative condition that entails rapid decline in cognitive functions, memory impairment, discoordination, and difficulty with self-care. People who experience dementia may forget familiar faces, even those of family members, they might become lost and wander easily, or they might injure themselves due to feelings of disconnection from reality.
While there are no clinical studies indicating that cannabis can treat dementia itself, the Alzheimer’s Society of the UK and other reputable scientific communities report substantial support for cannabis as an effective treatment of the behavioral symptoms of dementia. Many older people who suffer from dementia experience episodes of agitation and aggression. They may lash out unpredictably because they forget where they were or didn’t recognize someone who suddenly approached. They often grow frustrated at their inability to recall certain details or carry on with conversations, and these frustrations may manifest with aggression and/or depression.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the active compound found in marijuana that causes feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and happiness. Cannabidiol (CBD) also exists in marijuana but in lower concentrations than those found in hemp. CBD does not cause any psychoactive effects, but it can improve muscle relaxation and reduce inflammation. Medical cannabis typically includes some combination of THC and CBD, and medical marijuana cardholders can find strains that match their preferences.
4. Cannabis Helps Cancer Treatment
One of the primary driving forces behind the push for legalization of medical cannabis is the plant’s ability to treat both the symptoms of some cancers and the side effects of cancer treatments. The risk of certain cancers increases with age, and older adults are less resilient to side effects like nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and disorientation that often accompanies chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and other cancer treatments. More than 60% of chemotherapy patients experience nausea and vomiting, and these symptoms are more dangerous for seniors who may already struggle with appetite and hydration. Ultimately, cannabis can not only ease nausea but also increase appetite, helping cancer patients eat and absorb nutrients more effectively, which in turn bolsters overall health and resiliency after cancer treatment.
5. Cannabis Poses Few Risks of Side Effects
Responsibly sourced medical cannabis and cannabis products can be a functional, almost entirely natural alternative to typical pain medications, cancer treatment therapies, and other treatments that may entail side effects or simply won’t work for some patients. Although more research on the long-term effects of cannabis is necessary before medical researchers can draw solid conclusions about the drug’s efficacy as medicine, the current data shows tremendous promise for seniors struggling with various medical conditions.
In addition to these benefits, cannabis can also ease some of the most common symptoms of aging reported by seniors, including fatigue and relief from arthritis. The number of seniors using medical cannabis continues to rise and likely will continue rising in the near future as medical marijuana legislation changes across the country and public attitudes toward cannabis continue to change.
Seniors who feel self-conscious about asking their doctors about medical cannabis should know that many members of the medical community are accepting of the potential medical benefits of cannabis and can discuss patient concerns without judgment. Additionally, delivery methods and availability of high-quality cannabis products continues to improve, which may hopefully improve the lives of seniors all over the country.
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