Cannabis use among older adults has been steadily growing for several years in tandem with increasing legalization across the United States.
Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician, cannabis specialist, and instructor at Harvard Medical School, attributes the rise in senior cannabis consumption at least in part to “the decrease in stigma associated with cannabis use and the increased interest in the use of medical marijuana by older patients,” citing a 2019 statement from the AARP about medical marijuana.
A 2022 study affirms that older adults remain a quickly-growing demographic for the cannabis industry and supports the connection Grinspoon draws between decreased stigma and increased use.
“The most important factor was legalization, which sparked a shift in beliefs around using cannabis and shaped the beginning of de-stigmatization around using this substance. Increasing acceptance in their social networks and visibility of cannabis in the media also informed decision-making,” the study’s authors state, though they also add that they found “using cannabis for non-medicinal or social reasons remained stigmatized.”
Read on to learn more about how cannabis may hold benefits ranging from improved brain health to higher quality of life for seniors, as well as a few tips to help older cannabis consumers make the most of their experiences.
Some studies indicate that cannabis consumption during old age may offer an increased quality of life — especially when it comes to treating the symptoms of some wellness issues that become more common as you get older.
For example, a 2019 study that used in-person and online surveys to acquire responses from 274 Coloradoans with an average age of 72.5 years, found that common reasons for cannabis use included alleviating symptoms of arthritis, chronic back pain, anxiety, and depression.
The study’s authors found that individuals who had used cannabis in the past year “reported improved overall health, quality of life, day-to-day functioning, and improvement in pain.” Many of the survey respondents who did consume cannabis and who had access to both recreational and medical marijuana markets “described concurrent use of medical and recreational marijuana, use of multiple preparations, and overall positive health impacts.” Importantly, most cannabis-consuming respondents did not report “problems with falls/balance, driving, or accidents/injuries related to marijuana use.”
Many older adults who struggle with chronic pain turn to opioids to help with their symptoms. Opioids come with a variety of risks, however, such as increased incidence of falls and or increasing sensitivity to pain (known as hyperalgesia). Cannabis has a long history of helping individuals deal with chronic pain, and a 2021 study (albeit one funded by a VP at cannabis pharmaceutical giant Tilray) found that “the high rate of cannabis use for chronic pain and the subsequent reductions in opioid use suggest that cannabis may play a harm reduction role in the opioid overdose crisis, potentially improving the quality of life of patients and overall public health.”
As we age, our brain begins to change, and “these changes in the brain can affect mental function, even in healthy older people, according to the National Institute on Aging.
There is some evidence to suggest that cannabis may be able to help older individuals when it comes to brain health..
For example, a 2020 literature review that drew mostly from animal trials found that low doses of THC “restored learning and memory abilities in old mice to the level observed among young, untreated mice.” Despite the dearth of available and relevant studies, the review’s authors concluded that “preliminary evidence suggests that cannabis in older ages may not be linked with poor cognitive performance and may even be associated with better cognition and brain measure.”
Another literature review published at approximately the same time using a slightly different search strategy also found that “extremely low doses of THC improved cognition in very old rodents. Somewhat higher chronic doses improved cognition in moderately aged rodents.” Interestingly, no studies regarding the effects of CBD on senior brain health were found.
While the assertions presented above are indicative of the early stage we’re in regarding research on cannabis and the aging brain, these initial findings are promising enough to warrant further investigation and may help older cannabis users make decisions about their own well-being.
Older adults, like any other demographic of cannabis consumers, should take steps to make the most of cannabis as a wellness-enhancing product by minimizing the risk of side effects or other adverse outcomes.
As Dr. Alison Moore, professor and chief of geriatrics, gerontology and palliative care at University of California San Diego, noted in a June 2023 interview, “one of the things that's important not just for cannabis but for many older adults is that, as people age, they're at higher risk for harm from all types of medications, for example, sedatives, certain pain medications, like opioids and substances, like alcohol and cannabis.”
Moore says this higher risk level is the result of physiological changes that tend to occur as people age.
According to Moore, older cannabis users should be particularly cautious about potential “comorbidities or conditions that can complicate the use of substances and medication,” and avoid smoking, which can have negative effects on lung and heart health.
A series of guidelines published by a group of researchers in 2022 in the International Journal of Drug Policy offers additional best practices for cannabis consumption regardless of an individual's age. Those best practices are summarized here:
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