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.
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 it's two most common cannabinoids, THC and CBD are being enlisted by seniors to treat a host of conditions.
Common Medical Conditions of Seniors
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 necessarily used on its own to cure any condition.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.