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How Healthy Are You?

Older Adults Are Moving to Cannabis

Potential Benefits & Drawbacks Abound

The health effects for older adults smoking cannabis

By John Hand –

It is a good time to be in the marijuana business. Since 2015 legalized sales have grown by $30 billion and in the next few years they are expected to grow another 60 percent. None of this should be surprising as more and more states move to legalize it. 

What may catch people off guard is that an unexpected and thriving market for weed is with mature adults 65 and older. Beyond what may be a nostalgic draw for some, older adults are looking to marijuana for pain relief and to treat other ailments and conditions. In many cases, it is a safer and less expensive alternative to other medications. Yet despite the benefits, there are still plenty of reasons older individuals need to be cautious when it comes to marijuana, including its links to heart and lung issues.

These concerns, however, haven’t stopped mature adults from embracing marijuana for all sorts of reasons. In 2020, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, for example, surveyed 568 people 65 years and older about their marijuana use. Half of those surveyed said they used marijuana regularly and 15 percent reported using marijuana within the last three years. This statistic tracks with data from a national survey on drug use and health, which found that between 2015 and 2018 marijuana use doubled for those 65 and older. 

These adults use it to treat ailments such as arthritis, insomnia, diabetes and chronic pain. The benefits are supported by a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests marijuana can help. Unfortunately, there is limited scientific research to back up such claims. Beyond this, even if someone does find that a certain type of marijuana helps them sleep better, there is no way of knowing whether that marijuana will have the same result in another person. 

“There seems to be potential with cannabis, but we need more evidence-based research,” said Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and first co-author of the study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. 

“We want to find out how cannabis compares to current medications available. Could cannabis be a safer alternative to treatments such as opioids and benzodiazepines?” he added. “We want to find out which conditions cannabis is most effective in treating. Only then can we better counsel older adults on cannabis use.” 

Marijuana’s draw among older people also obviously reflects its rapid increase in legalization. Half of the states and the District of Columbia legalized it, making marijuana more accessible than ever. Consequently, lots of older people are trying cannabis for the first time. In fact, 61 percent of people over the age of 65 who tried marijuana for the first time did so after the age of 60. 

Cannabis is made up of 100 different cannabinoids, one of which is THC, a psychoactive compound that creates a buzz for users. Age, however, does play a role in how it impacts people, which can lead to problems. A person over the age of 65, for example, needs to be careful with marijuana or any drug because as humans age their physiology changes. In the case of marijuana, the drug will stay in an older person’s system longer because that person’s body fat-to-water ratio is higher than that of a younger person. 

THC in an older person’s system can also lead to an elongated period of impairment. Given that 60 percent of older adults are first-time users and lack experience with cannabis, the risk of a bad experience is higher for them than for others. This impact has been seen in California where marijuana has been legal for years. Emergency rate visits related to cannabis consumption among older adults rose 1,800 percent during the same time that usage was doubling for people over the age of 65. 

This is also a concerning correlation between older adults using any type of marijuana and higher rates of heart issues and lung problems. The American Heart Association recently reported that among people with an average age of 54, daily cannabis use over four years raised their risk of heart failure by 34 percent compared to those who did not use cannabis. The study also revealed 20 percent of marijuana users over the age of 65 increased their risk of cardiovascular disease. The practice of inhaling smoke from a vape or a regular joint can also damage the lungs.

While it’s increasingly legal and socially accepted, many older cannabis consumers—almost 60 percent—did not inform their healthcare provider of their use. 

Ultimately, marijuana may become a solution to a nagging ailment, but it is important to consult a doctor before using it, especially if someone is taking other medications. No matter how relatively inexpensive it is or what type of buzz it provides, more research is needed to correctly evaluate its medical benefits and potential drawbacks. 

 

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