While at the federal level, marijuana is still an illegal drug, recreational and medical marijuana/cannabis use has been legalized in 11 states and Washington, D.C., for people over age 21. (Another 22 states have legalized use of marijuana only for medical purposes.) While legalization has naturally led to increased marijuana use in many demographic groups, it might surprise you to learn that more and more seniors are among those partaking.
Study after study confirms this trend.
- According to a 2019 study out of the University of Colorado, marijuana use among people 60 and older in that state rose tenfold over the previous decade as more seniors use it to treat ailments such as pain, anxiety, and depression.
- Data from the 2017 National Survey of Drug Use and Health revealed that 9.4 percent of adults ages 60 to 64 reported using marijuana in the past year, an increase of 1.9 percent from the previous decade. Among those age 65 or older, 3.7 percent had used marijuana in the past year, up more than tenfold from just 0.3 percent in 2007.
Another study published earlier this year by NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine estimated that between 2015 and 2018, marijuana use among adults age 65 and over increased significantly. Among those seniors, marijuana usage increased by 75 percent in just the three years during which the study was conducted. Among the 65-plus population, 4.2 percent used marijuana in 2018 as compared to only 2.4 percent in 2015. Compare that to 2006 data when usage among that age group was just 0.4 percent.
Possible medicinal benefits
Dr. Benjamin Han is assistant professor of geriatric medicine and palliative care at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and was the lead author on the NYU study. He says he is asked more and more frequently by his patients about the potential therapeutic use of marijuana.
While there have been few long-term studies on the potential medicinal benefits of using marijuana, people are increasingly interested in trying it to see if it helps them. According to Harvard Medical School professor Peter Grinspoon, M.D., there is anecdotal evidence that medical use of marijuana can help with ailments such as:
- Chronic pain, particularly for diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and other types of nerve pain
- Epilepsy seizures
- Insomnia or trouble sleeping
- Irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease
- Nausea and weight loss due to illnesses such as cancer/chemotherapy
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Tremors, such as with Parkinson’s disease
- Wasting syndrome, a condition associated with HIV
It’s important to understand, however, that there are different varieties of the marijuana plant. Some strains are grown to have a higher concentration of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the type of plant that is often used recreationally to get the user “high.” Other strains are grown to have a higher concentration of cannabidiol (CBD). This is the plant variety often used in products designed to give the user a feeling of relaxation and calm. CBD products typically have little if any intoxicating “high” effects.
A concerning trend for seniors’ health?
While marijuana is considered safer than opiates (it is impossible to overdose and not generally considered addictive), it isn’t without risks, especially for seniors.
For example, the NYU study revealed a big jump in the number of people age 65 and over who are using marijuana in addition to alcohol. In 2015, only 2.9 percent of seniors said they used both alcohol and marijuana, although the data did not determine if they were using both substances simultaneously. However, by 2018, that number had more than doubled to 6.3 percent.
Geriatricians say they are troubled by this dramatic increase in seniors’ substance use, which could lead to substance abuse. Among the other concerning potential “side effects,” researchers believe seniors may actually be more sensitive to marijuana’s intoxicating psychoactive properties than younger users. This sensitivity could cause dizziness, which can in turn result in dangerous falls for seniors.
In addition, doctors worry about how certain medical conditions may be impacted by seniors’ marijuana use. Several small-scale studies, for example, have suggested that marijuana use may be harmful for people who have recently had a heart attack. Another 2016 study found that heavy recreational marijuana users had lower hip bone and lower spine mineral density, which can increase the risk of a life-threatening hip fracture.
There are other potential problems with seniors’ use of marijuana, including potential medication interactions. One is with the commonly used blood thinner warfarin. There is evidence that marijuana may increase blood serum concentrations of warfarin, which could in turn increase the chance of a serious bleed.
More safety data needed
Attitudes about marijuana use have definitely shifted in recent years. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans age 55+ now believe that marijuana use is “morally acceptable.” In 2019, Gallup also estimated that around two-thirds of American adults supported legalizing marijuana.
Overall, researchers and doctors agree that with the increased interest in and use of marijuana among seniors, more studies are needed to understand its potential risks and benefits to their health. If you are a senior who is considering trying marijuana, either for recreational or medicinal purposes, I highly suggest you talk with your doctor first. They can help you make a more informed decision about whether it is a safe option for you.
It’s also important to know that today’s marijuana is not the same as what you may have tried when you were younger. Many of the strains sold in legal marijuana dispensaries are much stronger than in previous decades. And again, since older people may be more sensitive to the chemical compounds in marijuana, it is wise to use caution to prevent falls or other dangerous side effects.