The short answer is cannabis reduces the stress of aging, inflammation, pain and depression, and improves sleep, quality of life, and mood. However, there is much more to it than that!
According to the U.S Census Bureau, 46.8 million or 15 percent of Americans in 2015 were over the age of 65. That number is projected to grow to 21 percent by 2030 to 74 million, and to 98.2 million by 2060. The average life-span in America is 78. As Americans live longer we have more chronic health problems which translates to more prescriptions, and often creates a different set of problems. How will we meet the health needs of our aging population? And, more importantly, how do meet the needs of this population in a way that fosters a high quality of life with a high degree of safety? The answers for many may be using cannabis.
The cannabis plant (marijuana) makes chemicals known as cannabinoids. They mimic critical chemicals produced by the human body called endocannabinoids, which are important messengers and regulators in what is known as the endocannabinoids system. Miraculously, this system is tasked with bringing the body back into balance or health when certain systems are stressed. That includes playing major roles in cognition, oxidation, neuroprotection, inflammation, hunger, and much more. These innately produced endocannabinoids and the health of one’s endocannabinoid system are critical to how each person’s body manages aging.
Aging is a biological process. Our ability to age gracefully, or not, boils down to how well our body manages oxidative stress and inflammation. Oxidation is happening all the time in the body when cells create waste products (free radicals) as a byproduct of energy.
“The body’s response to all this is to use antioxidants to stabilize the free radicals disabling them from doing damage to the DNA in our cells. However, if there are too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants present in the body, free radicals can go as far as stealing particles from your DNA, which can lead to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, autism, heart disease, Parkinson’s and stroke to name a few. This damage is known as oxidation. This is the same process that rusts metal or turns an apple brown after it is cut.”
The other critical part of managing the aging process is regulating inflammation, which is a common denominator in most age-related diseases. Cannabinoids happen to be powerful anti-inflammatory agents. When the body’s own endocannabinoids system is unable to bring it back to a state of health or balance, cannabinoids from the cannabis plant can be incredibly useful in regulating inflammation which often results in the control of uncomfortable symptoms including pain, nausea, insomnia, spasticity, depression and more. Most people think of inflammation as something they can see or feel. That is acute inflammation, like when you cut your finger and it turns red and swells, or you work out and have sore muscles. Chronic inflammation is usually more dangerous because you often cannot see it or feel it until it manifests into a chronic illness such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, restless leg syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis.
Cannabis can be restorative in all types of inflammation. It can reduce swelling and pain, serve as a muscle relaxer and relieve tired, aching muscles and joints, and it can work on a cellular level in many ways. One good example is how cannabinoids fight the accumulation of amyloid plaque in the brain which can ultimately result in Alzheimer’s. While not a silver bullet for solving the all problems of aging, cannabis use has proven effective for millions of seniors making it possible for them to reduce or stop taking a wide variety of over-the-counter and prescription pain killers, anti-inflammatory agents, anti-depressants, and sleep aids.
An observational study conducted by Zach Klien, a cannabis researcher and documentarian, followed 27 elderly people in an Israeli nursing home who took cannabis for pain relief, appetite, sleeping, spasticity, ataxia, agitation, depression, inflammation and movement impediments. Collectively, they traded in 39 prescription drugs for their cannabis only regimen. Patients reported being happier, eating and sleeping better, decreased depression and spasticity, and significantly improved pain relief. (Click here to see the documentary Prescribed Grass about this group.)
Specific Risks & Benefits of Cannabis for Seniors
Anyone reading this would have to then ask, “What are the risks?” They are surprising low especially when you compare it to opiates, sleeping aids, and other commonly prescribed medications. There are three primary factors that make cannabis a generally safe medicine:
There are not enough receptors in the part of the brain stem that control heart beat and breathing that are activated by cannabinoids, unlike the case with opioids.
Cannabis has a low toxicity profile meaning it is not known to do permanent damage.
No lethal dose has been established. Most medicines have established lethal doses. In the many thousands of years of recorded human history, there are no recorded deaths attributed to cannabinoid overdose.
Risks associated with cannabis use are mild. For seniors, the biggest concerns include loss of balance, dizziness, anxiety, throat irritation, sedation, short term memory loss, and risk of arrest. Uncomfortable side effects can often be mitigated by changing to a different chemovar (think strain) of cannabis or a different cannabinoid and terpene profile. (Terpenes are what give plants their smell – they are therapeutic in their own right and contribute greatly to the effects of a particular plant sample or cannabis product.)
Many seniors find the benefits of cannabis to their quality of life far outweigh the risks. Those benefits may include relaxation, improved memory, sleep, mood, pain relief, euphoria, and more. Additionally, cannabis has been shown to be a vasodilator and a strong neuroprotectant which helps protect against neurodegenerative diseases. Cannabis also opens bronchial passages, is a bone stimulant, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and can help reduce artery blockage. Not every plant sample will do all these things. Where people have safe access to legal cannabis one can dial in fairly quickly, which chemical profile provides the relief they desire. Until we have national legalization, entirely too many people will be forced to go to the black market where there is usually little information about the products making treating their symptoms a bit of a crap shoot… and illegal.
While the opiate crisis has raised awareness about their dangers, still too many people are dying from them. Patients sometimes think if a little is good, a lot must be better, or they mix them with alcohol, sleeping pills, other drugs, or the opioids stop working so people take more. Over 42,200 people died in 2016 due to accidental opiate overdose. Forty percent of those deaths involved a prescription. Among these sobering statistics, there is some good news! In states with functioning cannabis laws, accidental opioid overdose deaths have dropped by 25 percent.
This can likely be attributed to the fact that legal access to cannabis has provided a safer alternative to opioids. Research shows cannabis and cannabinoid therapeutics boost the effectiveness of opiates making it possible for the patient to take less, reducing risk of addiction and side-effects. In an article published in the medical journal Nature, (Nielsen et al), the authors report that:
17 of 19 pre-clinical studies demonstrated synergistic effects from opioid-cannabinoid co-administration.
The median effective dose (ED50) of morphine administered in combination with the psychoactive cannabinoid THC is 3.6 times lower than the ED50 of morphine alone.
The ED50 of codeine administered in combination with THC is 9.5 times lower that the ED50of codeine alone.
This paper illustrates how cannabinoids increase opioid effectiveness and reduce risk for the patients. Further indications of the effectiveness of cannabis as a pain killer can be seen in research conducted by Bradford and Bradford in 2017 which shows that among the states with functioning medical cannabis laws, doctors wrote 1,832 less daily doses prescriptions for pain medication. This is reflected in savings in the Medicare Part D spending, which was reduced by $165 M in 2013 among legal cannabis states. Had all states had a functioning medical cannabis program by 2013, the savings is projected to have been over $468M.
Chronically ill and healthy seniors alike find cannabis beneficial to them for very different reasons. Some people are managing symptoms, others are trying to change disease progression as in the case of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and seizure disorders. Others use it to relax and proactively help control inflammation and oxidation. For the sake of better living for all, the time has come for seniors to get informed about the benefits and risks of cannabis and get active in the legalization movement. We all deserve safe access to cannabis!