Cannabis and Seniors

A guide to cannabis use among seniors, including why they’re using it, the age-related medical conditions it can treat, and the potential social benefits for older people.
Last Modified: April 02, 2019

Seniors are commonly defined as anyone over the age of 65. There is some variability in that figure, depending on your source, but this is a good average to work with. Today’s seniors are yesterday’s baby boomers, which means a large percentage of the population is entering their retirement years.

It also means a stark increase in the number of people suffering from age-related illnesses and other conditions. Prescription drug use is at an all-time high among seniors, and it’s not uncommon for people to be taking four or more different drugs simultaneously. This is causing a backlash against established medicine and a search for alternatives. Cannabis and its two most common cannabinoids, THC and CBD are being enlisted by seniors to treat a host of conditions.

Seniors are the Fastest Growing Segment of Cannabis Users

According to a recent study, seniors are currently the fastest growing population in the cannabis community. This is driven primarily by an interest in replacing prescription medications with an alternative that doesn’t have sorts of side effects seniors face with multiple medications.

According to Sue Taylor, a commissioner on aging in Alameda County, California, “Most seniors we see are taking fifteen to twenty-six pills a day.” Consider, she says, a patient that goes in for high blood pressure. “The doctor gives them a pill for it, which causes the thyroid to go out. The thyroid pill causes the liver to go out. The liver pill makes your pancreas go out of whack, and the list goes on,” she said. “Most important, the patients are not getting better. They’re getting worse and worse.”

The overuse of prescription medications is a primary driver in the growth of cannabis among seniors.


Seniors’ Attitudes Toward Medical Marijuana

In general, medical marijuana is gaining acceptance among seniors as use becomes more widespread. This sentiment echoes the reaction to medical marijuana in society as a whole. According to Pew Research, support for the legalization of medical marijuana is as high or higher among seniors as it is among younger generations. However, there are certainly different reasons why seniors are beginning to use cannabis.

Interest in the Medical Benefits

Most seniors are interested in the health benefits of medical marijuana, and CBD specifically but aren’t interested in “getting high”. Doctors report a large increase in the number of seniors looking at CBD and cannabis as a means to get off some of the prescriptions drugs they’re on, particularly opiates and other medicines with unwanted side effects.

According to a recent study, the median number of prescription medications people over the age of 65 are taking is four, and the number of seniors taking five or more has tripled since 1980. Seniors are finding the unwanted side effects from the medications individually, and as a result of drug interactions, are becoming a problem that needs solving. CBD, THC, and cannabis in general promise exactly what seniors are looking for.

Former Smokers Returning

Today’s seniors were young adults in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the heyday of early “pot culture”. According to the New Yorker, there’s a segment of seniors that are looking to medical marijuana both for its palliative properties and its recreational value. These are people that used to smoke when they were younger but gave it up when they had kids and started families.

As opposed to seniors that focus primarily on CBD for its medicinal value without the psychoactive effects, these seniors primarily smoke, vape, or ingest whole plant products with THC included as means to become more healthful as well as enjoy their retirement years as they see fit.


Cannabis as a Social Outlet for Seniors

As it has for millennia for people in general, cannabis is becoming an excuse for seniors to socialize and get out into the world. Not only is medical marijuana effective for treating common senior ailments, but it’s also a fun hobby.

Seniors can occupy their minds and their time choosing from different cannabis strains, or from the many different preparations available, exploring their effects and judging which options work best for their specific conditions. They get together to share experiences and help each other find new, useful products. This social element expresses itself in a number of ways.

Senior Cannabis Clubs

In many senior living facilities around the country, in states where medical and/or recreational cannabis has been legalized, you’re starting to see cannabis clubs forming. These are groups of like-minded seniors interested in cannabis and in learning more about what it can do for them.

According to Forbes, the second largest senior cannabis club in California is the Rossmore Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club. It currently boasts a membership list of 1,000 people and is the most popular club/activity of all those available at the Rossmore Walnut Creek senior living community.

The group meets twice a month to listen to various speakers talk about cannabis and medical marijuana-related topics. They also sponsor social events and informal social meetings, which happen fairly frequently. Residents of the community say they very much enjoy the talks and the chance to get good information about cannabis.

For seniors, these groups are proving to be invaluable. There is a lot of information about cannabis available online, but for many, it’s difficult to determine what’s factual and what isn’t. Having a community of cannabis-using peers to bounce ideas off of, as well as frequent guest experts to field questions can be a critical component of many seniors’ knowledge base and support network.

Dispensary Field Trips

Group field trips to medical marijuana dispensaries are becoming fairly common in areas where cannabis has been legalized. These trips are similar to other group outings that retirement homes commonly organize. These, however, cater to a very specific group of seniors.

As NPR points in a recent article, seniors find the camaraderie of traveling to dispensaries and shopping together to be an excellent way to socialize and get the medical cannabis they need.

These scheduled trips are arranged with the dispensary ahead of time so that the staff can be prepared to answer any questions the seniors might have, and so that the dispensary can be sure to have the products most frequently purchased by seniors in stock and ready for sale.


Common Medical Conditions That Seniors Can Treat with Cannabis

As we get older our bodies and minds can begin to show their age. There are a number of age-related conditions that seniors frequently suffer from, and the chances that we may develop any one of them increases with age. Science has discovered that a number of these conditions can benefit from some of the cannabinoids found medical marijuana.

In general, cannabis is more of a palliative therapy, rather than a curative one for seniors. It’s good for managing the symptoms of a wide range of conditions and can be an effective adjunct treatment for others. It isn’t used on its own to cure any condition.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is the most common cause of blindness in people over the age of 60. It’s caused by a breakdown on the eyes’ ability to regulate their own pressure. It’s an inherited condition but it generally doesn’t begin to show up until later in life.

When the eyes can’t regulate their fluid levels you can get dangerous increases in intraocular pressure which can, over time, damage optic nerves and lead to decreased vision and total blindness. The condition can’t be cured but it can be managed, and cannabis can help.

Smoking cannabis has been shown in repeated studies to lower intraocular pressure (IOP) for three to four hours. Eating cannabis edibles is also effective. Eye drops containing THC and CBD have been tried but the dosages involved aren’t high enough to reduce IOP adequately.

Cannabis isn’t generally recommended to seniors as the sole treatment for the condition. Using it as such would require the individual to smoke or consume cannabis every three to four hours, every day, for life. Given the psychoactive effects, it’s hard to recommend this for all seniors. But cannabis can be an effective adjunct to standard glaucoma eye drops.

Cancer

Our chances of getting cancer, in any number of forms, increases as we age. The odds begin to climb as we enter our mid-40s, and by our 60s mortality rates have swelled, making cancer treatment an unfortunate reality for many seniors.

Cannabis is an effective palliative treatment for the nausea and vomiting associated with the harsh chemotherapy treatments patients are subjected to. Smoking or vaping the whole plant is the most common treatment for both of these symptoms. Consuming cannabis edibles isn’t frequently recommended because it takes much longer to take effect and, in the meantime, could be vomited up.

Seniors in particular need to control these symptoms as it’s important for older people to get the nutrition they need, for bone health and general wellness. Aging bodies don’t rebound nearly as quickly from cancer and cancer treatments, and if an individual can’t eat or can’t keep food down their chances of recovery drop precipitously.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Seniors facing the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s have two reasons to turn to cannabis, one proven and one promising.

Frequently patients spiral into depression in the early stages of the disease, while they’re still lucid enough to recognize what’s happening to them. This often results in a loss of appetite. Both this and the depression can be treated with cannabis. Its proven ability to stimulate the appetite and engage the mind can be quite helpful.

Compounding these known effects are the results of a study performed in 2014. Its authors found that THC was effective in slowing the advancement of beta-amyloids, clumps of proteins found frequently in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. These beta-amyloids are a prime candidate in the search for the causes of the disease.

This research is extremely promising, as it demonstrates that THC can have a direct, positive impact on the progression of the illness. In the words of the researchers, “These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”

Bone Health

Osteoporosis is a major problem for seniors. This systemic loss of vital minerals weakens bones and makes seniors far more susceptible to fractures, even from relatively small falls. Falls can frequently be fatal for the elderly, so the fact the CBD has been shown to strengthen bones and help fractures heal should be welcome news for seniors everywhere.

Pain

Near constant, low-level pain from any number of sources is a frequent feature in the lives of many seniors. Vascular issues, arthritis, muscle degradation, nerve damage, and pain resulting from chronic illness can negatively impact their quality of life. Opiates are a popular treatment, but the opioid crisis and the over-prescription of painkillers have prompted many senior to look for new ways to manage their pain.

When medical marijuana is either smoked, vaped, eaten or applied topically as a cream, science indicates that substantial pain relief can be achieved. The topical application is of particular interest to seniors, some of whom may be uninterested in the psychoactive effects of cannabis and only want pain relief.

A recent study in the European Journal of Pain modeled arthritis pain in rats and then tested to see if topical CBD preparations were effective at reducing localized pain and inflammation. The results were promising.

In the study’s conclusion, the authors write, “These data indicate that topical CBD application has therapeutic potential for relief of arthritis pain-related behaviors and inflammation without evident side-effects.”


Seniors, Mental Health Issues and Cannabis

Beyond the physical ailments that cannabis and cannabis-related compounds can help with there are a number of mental health issues that many seniors face that can be eased with medical marijuana products.

Anxiety and Depression

Many seniors fall into depression. This can be due to isolation, feelings that friends and family have forgotten them, or simply changes in the brain brought on by age. Anxiety can also be a problem. Studies have shown that CBD can help with both of these, due to the fact that it stimulates serotonin production in the brain, mimicking the effects of common antidepressant, anti-anxiety medications.

More research is needed to fully understand the biochemical processes involved, but initial studies are promising, and many seniors report significant relief from CBD preparations, as well as cannabis itself.

It is important to point out that cannabis can, in some people, product anxiety instead of relieving it. For these individuals, CBD alone is a better choice.

Eating Disorders

It has been reported that 80% of deaths resulting from anorexia occur in the senior population. Many seniors simply stop feeling the desire to eat. This can be caused by loneliness and despair, or by simple biochemical processes that disrupt the normal signals the brain sends to the rest of the body to stimulate hunger.

Anorexia is dangerous for people in general but is doubly so for seniors. Not getting proper nutrition puts them at greater risk for a host of problems.

Medical marijuana is an effective, side-effect-free way for seniors to stimulate hunger and override their inclination to avoid food. For some seniors, this can be a life or death decision.

Insomnia

Insomnia can be a serious problem for seniors. The body has a natural tendency to sleep lighter and in shorter bursts as we age, but there are also a number of other factors that can contribute to insomnia in seniors.

Polypharmacy, the situation many seniors find themselves in where they must take multiple medications, can contribute to sleeplessness, depending on side effects. They may also be contending with constant pain which can awaken them or keep them from falling asleep, as well as having to awaken multiple times a night to urinate.

For seniors already declining cognitively, a frequent loss of sleep hours can intensify the problem. It’s critical for them to find a way to get the sleep they need.

Today, many elderly people are eschewing habit-forming sleep aids for cannabis and THC products, which are shown to promote sleep without addiction. For some people, cannabis is the only thing that works for them.

It’s interesting to note that CBD alone has been found to have the opposite effect. It seems to promote alertness when in a waking state and has no effect at all on sleep.

Isolation and Loneliness

As seniors age, they often end up isolated, either by choice or as a result of illness and other infirmities. This isolation can be self-reinforcing. The longer a senior has been cut off from family and peers, the easier it is to continue the isolation and loneliness for fear of changing routines.

According to the U.S. Census Office, 28% of people over the age of 65 live alone. It’s an unfortunate reality that as people age, spouses pass away and the chances of a senior living alone go up. Unless they have a devoted support network or a close group of established friends, seniors that lack the mobility they had when they were younger can find themselves stuck at home, without meaningful interactions with other people.

Cannabis, and CBD in particular have been shown to help reduce social anxiety and promote feelings of calm and ease. This can be very important for seniors that either avoid social contact or don’t want it enough to deal with the physical challenges that prevent them from seeking interaction.

And because cannabis treats a host of age-related conditions, you get a compounding effect. Cannabis helps people feel better so that social interaction becomes more feasible and it helps motivate them to seek meaningful human contact.


Cannabis’s Brain-boosting Prospects for Seniors

This is a field of ongoing research but one study provided very positive results supporting the notion that cannabis and THC can have a brain-boosting effect for seniors. This is exciting because many seniors face a steady decline in their cognitive functions over time. We know that cannabis has the ability to slow the progress of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but the prospect of positive brain function enhancement could be a boon to seniors everywhere.

It’s important to be cautious when extrapolating this study to humans since it was performed on mice. However, it does represent a proof of concept that THC has the ability to enhance and improve cognitive functions in mammals.

THC Creates New Connections in the Brain

Researchers gave THC to young, middle-aged, and elderly mice. They found that young mice performed worse on cognitive tests after being dosed. The other two groups, however, did much better than similar mice that weren’t given the drug. The older mice, in fact, out-performed their THC-free peers by a greater amount than the middle-aged mice.

The most intriguing findings came when the researchers dissected and analyzed the brains of the mice that took part in the study. They found that the brains of the senior mice that received THC had memory and learning structures in the brain that looked more like the structures in the brains of the younger mice. It appeared that the THC had stimulated new neuronal activity, creating new connections within the brain, restoring some of the brain’s youthfulness.

According to Andres Zimmer, the study’s lead researcher, this result makes sense in the greater context of what we know about the brains endogenous endocannabinoid system, the system within our bodies that produces cannabinoids and maintains receptors for the compounds. He said, “The idea is that as animals grow old, similar to in humans, the activity of the endogenous cannabinoid system goes down—and that coincides with signs of aging in the brain. So we thought, ‘What if we stimulate the system by supplying [externally produced] cannabinoids?’”

It’s too early to tell whether researchers will find the same effects in humans, but Zimmer and his team are in the planning process for human trials now. If the results of these tests are similar to the mouse study, and researchers are optimistic, it could mean a watershed moment in the history of human aging.


More Seniors Will Benefit From Cannabis in the Future

As acceptance of medical and recreational marijuana continues to gain traction, and as the stigma fades away, it’s likely that the percentage of seniors using cannabis will continue to grow. The benefits are demonstrable and the support networks are growing. And as research discovers new treatments for senior-specific ailments the number of seniors that can benefit from cannabis will climb.


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