Updated on January 21, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Seniors are the fastest growing demographic for medical cannabis, according to a recent University of Colorado study. But the trend isn’t as unusual as it might sound. Many people in this age group deal with issues such as joint inflammation, chronic pain, insomnia, muscle spasms, decreased appetite, among many other things. Now, instead of relying exclusively on prescription drugs, many seniors are seeking medical marijuana for the very same ailments. The growth is a testament to the shifting view of marijuana, which patients and physicians now recognize as a pain reliever for a range of condition like chronic pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia and cancer.
As more seniors turn to medical cannabis, it’s vital to understand not only the benefits it can provide but also how to obtain it and properly use it.
Cannabis use in U.S. adults over age 65 saw more than a tenfold increase from 2007 to 2017, with many of them seeking it for medical use. The most significant factor is that medical cannabis is now on their radar, as more states legalize both medical and recreational cannabis. With age, people are often vulnerable to more health risks, and an estimated 65 percent of Americans over the age of 65 suffer from some kind of pain. While research on medical cannabis is limited, many studies confirm its use as a pain reliever.
Here’s why some healthcare professionals are recommending medical marijuana to their senior patients:
Offers a safe pain relief alternative: Opioids are becoming a considerable concern among the senior population. More than 80 percent of older patients (ages 57 to 85) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Taking various prescriptions can lead to unintentional misuse and overuse, explained by the rising number of hospitalizations for senior opiate abuse. Unlike opioids, medical cannabis is a non-addictive treatment and a more effective alternative.
Delivers few side effects: Most prescription medicines have several side effects. Common ones include dizziness, constipation, upset stomachs, sleep changes, blurred vision and mood changes – which can all severely impact a senior’s life. Medical cannabis doesn’t have persisting side effects, but can increase fatigue, hunger and hinder balance.
Treats multiple symptoms: Many seniors are receiving a cocktail of medications from their physicians. While necessary in severe cases, multiple medications require supervision and constant medical attention. To make matter worse, a combination of select medicines can lead to adverse effects. Medications don’t always interact well together and can cause more serious complications, whereas taking medical cannabis on its own reduces that risk.
What Medical Cannabis Can Treat
Studies and research has shown that medical cannabis is capable of treating the following conditions, which are common among seniors:
Medical cannabis can treat these conditions by making symptoms less severe and less painful, but studies have not concluded that medical cannabis can cure any singular condition or disease.
How Medical Marijuana Use Benefits Seniors
For physicians as well as patients, medical marijuana does more than offer a safe treatment option for multiple conditions — it also leads to the following benefits. It can:
Manage your pain: Age often influences day-to-day pain, leading many seniors to use prescription painkillers, as well as abandon everyday hobbies. With less pain and improved mobility, seniors can embrace their hobbies and enhance their quality of life.
Combat your depression: Seniors can especially face depression as they can become more isolated with age due to the loss of friends and family, as well as the relocation of younger relatives. Certain strains of medical cannabis can create a happy, blissful state of mind as opposed to a more lethargic or relaxed one.
Improve your sleep quality: On average, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep, yet more than 35 percent of seniors between the ages of 55 and 64 get less than that. Lack of sleep can lead to several health risks, including obesity, heart attacks, diabetes and strokes. Like opioids, the use of sleeping pills introduces the risk of dependency and a range of side effects. By using medical cannabis with a high concentration of cannabidiol (CBD), seniors can fall asleep and stay asleep with minimal side effects.
How Seniors Use Medical Marijuana
Like any other patient, senior use of medical marijuana can vary, depending on their condition and preferences. Administration options for medical cannabis include:
In most cases, a physician will recommend a treatment method that will deliver the best results with minimal side effects. If you cannot inhale smoke or apply topical creams due to lung or skin sensitivity, for instance, your medical marijuana doctor may suggest using edibles, as they can deliver the same relief. Approaches can change, however, depending on your experience with a medicating method. You may discover, for example, that your pain responds better to a topical cream, which provides localized relief.
As well as choosing an administration option, many senior patients will also need to select an appropriate strain for treating their symptoms. For elderly patients, a strain with a high concentration of CBD and a low percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is ideal, as THC delivers a more psychoactive experience than CBD.