Ganja for Grandma? Researching Medical Cannabis for the Elderly

We are all familiar with the image of the forgetful stoner. Almost every smoker can recall a time where they couldn’t remember a name or fact; but now, almost counter intuitively, studies are beginning to show that marijuana use may be beneficial for older generations, especially those experiencing dementia.

Last July I wrote about David Nutt and his calls for government regulation to be loosened so that they no longer restrict research into the benefits and hazards of marijuana. These calls have not stopped—especially in light of the legalization of recreational use of marijuana in Washington State and Colorado and the subsequent domino effect those legalization efforts are having when it comes to other US states considering either legalization or decriminalization.

Now that the use of marijuana, both recreationally and legally, is becoming less of a taboo subject there have been calls for more studies on what illnesses and health issues marijuana is an acceptable treatment for as well as how patients will be affected in the long term.  As evidence builds that marijuana can be an effective treatment for medical issues that are faced by the elderly, questions have been raised about just how effective it is and what affect it will have on that population.

A recent study, conducted at Radboud University Medical Center and published in the February issue of Ageing Research Reviews, addressed marijuana use in the elderly, stating “although trials studying medical cannabinoids included older subjects, there is a lack of evidence of its use specifically in older patients.”

Specifically, marijuana use has in some cases proven effective at treating pain, nausea, loss of appetite and even dementia in the elderly. The authors of the study report that there are only five studies that directly relate to marijuana use primarily in elderly patients. In the opinion of the authors, it is not enough evidence to effectively draw conclusions about the affect medicinal marijuana use has on the aging mind.

The lack of a significant volume of research could lead to some doctors to avoid prescribing marijuana, simply because they aren’t confident in the available medical research.

In the report, the team states that, “Adequately powered trials are needed to assess the efficacy and safety of cannabinoids in older subjects, as the potential symptomatic benefit is especially attractive in this age group.” And also that, “It is highly worthwhile to conduct well designed studies on the efficacy of cannabinoids in symptom management in dementia, given the initial positive results on weight loss and agitation in this patient population, and the great lack of other effective and safe strategies in this field.”

Studying how marijuana affects both the aging population and younger generations is important because research has shown that young and old brains react to marijuana differently. In fact, some researchers predict that use of marijuana could potentially prevent the development of illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease later in life. In an interview with Leaf Science, neuroscience professor Gary Wenk stated, “I think all we can say safely so far is using low doses of marijuana for prolonged periods of time at some point in your life, possibly when you’re middle-aged to late middle-aged, is probably going to slow the onset or development of dementia, to the point where you’ll most likely die of old age before you get Alzheimer’s.”

If in addition to treating existing conditions marijuana could also be used for preventative medicine, it would be a total game changer. And, in that light, it seems appropriate for studies on marijuana’s effects on all ages to proceed without restriction.


Photo Credit: Leah Borchert


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