By Alice Blunt

When many people think of cannabis users, the first image that comes to mind is of young people – teenagers or young adults – enjoying edibles at a concert or smoking a joint at a party.  It therefore may be surprising to learn that in the United States, the population experiencing signifincant increases in cannabis use is the older set, those fifty years and up.  The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers found that cannabis use in this segment of the population increased about 250 percent from 2006 to 2013.  Why is pot use among seniors on the rise?  Are there special considerations that those on the golden side of the age spectrum may need to consider before hopping aboard the pot bandwagon?

creamapplication arthritis hands

Medical Marijuana: Many Uses Among Seniors

The majority of the rise in marijuana use among seniors is due to a rise in medical marijuana availability. Many medical issues and symptoms marijuana effectively treats are those the senior population encounters on a more regular basis than younger folk do.  Symptoms related to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and glaucoma all can be treated with medical marijuana. These symptoms may include depression, lack of appetite, anxiety, and pain management, but also issues such as eye pressure and muscle spasms. Many people are finding arthritis, nerve damage and the normal aches and pains of growing older can all be relieved with the right strain of medical marijuana. It’s worth noting that marijuana need not be ingested for these sorts of treatment; creams, rubs and lotions infused with THC can be applied locally to the problem area, providing targeted treatment without the high. 

Seniors also gravitate towards marijuana for medical use because it can enhance or even replace other medications for conditions such as pain management and insomnia.  Seniors are more likely than the rest of the population to take multiple prescriptions, which can be challenging to manage as health conditions worsen and, in some cases, memory loss develops.  Therefore, the ability of cannabis to cut down on that list of prescriptions with minimal side effects is worth noting. Also, many experts and longtime users argue cannabis does not have the addictive qualities of opioids or the severe side effects of many antipsychotic drugs, further enhancing its suitability for senior medical use.

senior women enjoying marijuana

Marijuana as the “Happy Drug”

You know how some strains of marijuana are known to promote the giggles and a “happy high”?  This can be especially good news for seniors, who are at a greater risk for social isolation and the related depression this can cause.  Instead of suffering a decline in health due to the symptoms of depression, seniors who use marijuana can experience elevated moods and increased motivation to do the things they love to do.  Even the typically friendly nature of marijuana ingestion – sharing a bowl of bud among friends or passing around a joint before a movie – helps increase that social factor important in fighting depression. 

And as for “he who laughs, lasts”?  Some surprising proven health benefits of laughter include increased immune systems functioning, protection for the heart, decreased stress levels, decreased levels of pain and relaxed muscles.  Also, research shows that laughter increases life span, so those seniors who are giggling from marijuana use may be around longer to enjoy their happy life.

Risks for Seniors Using Cannabis

However, not all the reported outcomes of seniors using cannabis are rosy.  Doctors in Canada have noted that some elderly patients who use cannabis experience an increase in delirium, a type of confusion common in advanced age.  Also, some strains are known to increase feelings of drowsiness and dizziness, which is especially bad news for people who are already a bit unstable on their feet.  Doctors worry these strains could contribute to falls in elderly patients. 

Due to these concerns, it is typical for doctors to prescribe marijuana to seniors at lower doses then they would for younger people, and modifying as needed.  Also, some doctors claim that using a vaporizer or ingesting cannabis orally are the best methods for seniors, as these tend to deliver the drug in less potent and sudden fashion.

The Need for More Research

The federal classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug in the United States hampers serious research on its effects on seniors (or on any other segment of the population, for that matter).  Even in Canada, medical marijuana has not gone through the same rigorous testing that regular pharmaceutical drugs have. Therefore, seniors interested in using marijuana for medical reasons should talk with their doctor to determine if marijuana could be beneficial for their specific issues or ailments. While it can still take some hunting to find a doctor willing to recommend or prescribe weed, for some, the natural benefits are well worth the effort.

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