Older adults are one of the fastest growing populations of cannabis users in the United States. While some older adults have been using cannabis for decades, studies suggest others are turning to the drug for the first time to help them sleep better, ease pain, or treat anxiety — especially when medications over prescription, which often cause unwanted side effects, are not. This doesn’t work as expected.
In 2007, only about 0.4 percent of people aged 65 and older in the United States reported using cannabis in the past year, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This figure rose to almost 3% in 2016. By 2022, it was over 8%.
Nancy Herring, 76, has used cannabis recreationally her entire adult life – she describes herself as “one of the hippies of the ’60s.” But it wasn’t until her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and dementia two years ago that she began to question the medicinal use of pot.
During her illness, her husband, now 79, developed insomnia. Soon neither of them slept.
Doctors prescribed pills to help her rest, but “nothing really worked,” she said. At one point, he reacted so negatively to a medication that he ended up in the hospital.
Next, they tried an indica strain from a dispensary near their home in Clearwater, Florida. Now, after a gum and a puff of a pipe, her husband “can sleep at night, which is a huge thing,” she said.
The medicinal properties of marijuana have not been well studied, particularly among older users, making it difficult for doctors to advise their patients about the benefits and risks. Cannabis companies have rushed to fill this void, offering advice to seniors on doses or formulations and even creating products intended to appeal to them. Meanwhile, as more seniors experiment with cannabis, they evangelize to each other about its benefits and share the problems they’ve encountered along the way.
“People are just desperate,” said Dr. Aaron Greenstein, a geriatric psychiatrist in Denver. “They are willing to try anything.”
When her own grandmother became convinced she was reliving the Holocaust during the final stages of her dementia, taking a dissolvable strip containing a small amount of THC – the psychoactive component of marijuana – ended her her flashbacks and helped her feel at peace.
“I have had dozens of patients tell me it has cured their various illnesses,” said Dr. Haley V. Solomon, a geriatric psychiatrist in San Diego who, with Dr. Greenstein, has written about the promises and the risks of the elderly. consume cannabis. “I think it’s really important to listen to them, acknowledge it and then study it in more depth.”
Older adults need to be aware of potential drug interactions, she added, and also think about how cannabis may affect cognition, coordination and balance.
“The medications don’t work. »
Without a North Star guiding seniors on how to use cannabis, some seniors are scrambling to educate each other.
Carminetta Verner, 88, has become the go-to source for cannabis information at her retirement community, the sprawling Leisure World complex in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is home to about 8,000 seniors.
In 2018, she founded a club dedicated to educating residents about medical cannabis. The club’s membership, which now numbers about 100, might be higher if not for the stigma still associated with the drug, Ms. Verner said.
“There are a lot of people here who are hurting and hurting, and the medications aren’t working for them,” she said.
Damien Cornwell, owner of a dispensary in Binghamton, N.Y., that opened in February, said his business attracted customers who were “looking for relief they couldn’t get at the doctor.” They suffer from illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety and insomnia, he said.
As more states legalize cannabis – its recreational use is now permitted in more than 20 states and Washington, D.C., and for medical purposes in 38 states and D.C. – the number of seniors who are turning toward marijuana will only increase, experts said. An October Gallup poll found that about two-thirds of adults 55 and older think marijuana use should be legal.
Cannabis brands are courting seniors.
Steve Hickerson, who lives in Laguna Woods, California, wants to sleep better.
He used sublingual cannabis drops, but said it didn’t help, so he’s trying gummies, “which seem to work a lot better.” In the past, he thought using mind-altering drugs was morally wrong – “I’m a Christian,” he explained – but now, he said, “I’m 79, things are different. » He is ready to explore products for medical use.
Companies are capitalizing on this new interest. Earlier this year, Mr. Hickerson traveled by bus to an event hosted by Glass House, one of the country’s largest cannabis brands, with about 50 other people from his retirement community who were offered cannabis products at a substantial discount.
The Trulieve company, which has the largest retail footprint for cannabis products in the United States and a 750,000 square foot cannabis cultivation facility in North Florida, is also connecting with seniors through educational sessions in senior living communities.
Kim Rivers, co-founder and chief executive of Trulieve, said its “wise” customers — those 55 and older — are growing year over year. In Florida, she added, those adults make up 20 percent of their clientele.
Bristol Extracts, which makes cannabis in New York, created a brand called Senior Moments — a collection of tinctures, gummies and mints that debuted in March.
“IT’S TIME TO SPICE THINGS UP A LITTLE!” » » proclaims the company’s website. “Aging doesn’t have to be mundane.”
The brand’s edible products also contain ingredients like ginkgo biloba that are touted as supporting “memory and mood.” Soon the line will include body balms and gummies that function as both a sleep aid and an aphrodisiac, said Eric Blazak, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.
What should older adults know about cannabis?
Because cannabis is not federally legal, doctors do not have enough research to guide them on what conditions it is useful in, who might be at greater risk for potential harm, how to dose it correctly, or what varieties recommend, said Dr. Benjamin. Han, a specialist in addiction medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the few geriatricians in the United States who studies older adults and substance use.
“What makes things even more complicated is that cannabis is a very complex plant,” he added, and there are more than 100 cannabinoids – the biologically active components of the cannabis plant – as well as products with different THC/cannabidiol, or CBD, ratios. .
Start low and slow. If a patient wants to try cannabis products containing THC, Dr. Han recommends starting with a low dose (usually 1 milligram to 2.5 milligrams) and then “giving it a week” before making the decision. to increase it.
Taking too many edibles can cause dizziness, confusion, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, panic attacks, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, and can even land some people in the emergency room.
There is also a risk of cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a condition that causes recurrent vomiting in heavy marijuana users.
One study, led by Dr. Han, found that emergency room visits associated with cannabis use among seniors increased by more than 1,800% in California, from 366 in 2005 to 12,167 in 2019.
Older users can draw on their previous experience with the drug, but “cannabis today is very different,” he said. “It is stronger. And then on top of that, there are all these physiological changes related to aging that make you more sensitive than you were 40 years ago.
Discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. “It’s important to speak with a clinician or healthcare provider, especially if you are using it for medical reasons to treat a chronic illness or chronic symptoms,” Dr. Han said.
Cannabis may interact with certain medications, such as warfarin, a medication used to treat blood clots. And older adults who take sedative-hypnotics like Ambien or benzodiazepines like Xanax — or who drink alcohol — should consider avoiding cannabis, Dr. Solomon said, because when combined with these medications, it can cause dizziness and confusion and make older people more susceptible to falls and injuries.
And smoking cannabis can trigger respiratory symptoms in people with chronic lung disease, Dr. Han added.
Find out. Ms. Verner recommended going to licensed dispensaries that sell third-party tested products. Also familiarize yourself with state regulations, she said.
“You just need to educate yourself, don’t be afraid of things, learn on your own,” Ms. Verner said. “You have to know what can work for you – and you go from there. »
Through trial and error, she discovered that cannabinol, or CBN, which is not psychoactive, was very helpful for her insomnia.
Now she takes fewer pills: just one for her thyroid levels and another to lower her blood pressure.
Many older people “end up with all these medicine bottles,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s necessary.”