More older adults turn to cannabis to treat common ailments

More US Seniors Are Smoking Marijuan

Cannabis use is becoming more accepted nationwide, with fewer than a dozen states making it fully illegal. One group turning to cannabis more than ever is older adults.

A study published in April found the number of Americans age 65 and older who smoke marijuana or enjoy edibles increased 75% from 2015 to 2018. Now, research out of the University of California – San Diego shows older adults are using cannabis to treat a host of common health conditions.

The study, published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that of 568 patients surveyed, 15% had used cannabis within the past three years, with half of users reporting using it regularly and mostly for medical purposes.

“Pain, insomnia and anxiety were the most common reasons for cannabis use and, for the most part, patients reported that cannabis was helping to address these issues, especially with insomnia and pain,” Christopher Kaufmann, co-first author of the study and assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego, said in a press release.

The researchers also found that of the patients who used cannabis, 61% didn’t start until after age 60.

“Surprisingly, we found that nearly three-fifths of cannabis users reported using cannabis for the first time as older adults. These individuals were a unique group compared to those who used cannabis in the past,” said Kevin Yang, co-first author and third-year medical student at UC San Diego.

“New users were more likely to use cannabis for medical reasons than for recreation. The route of cannabis use also differed, with new users more likely to use it topically as a lotion rather than by smoking or ingesting as edibles," he said. "Also, they were more likely to inform their doctor about their cannabis use, which reflects that cannabis use is no longer as stigmatized as it was previously.”

Given the increase in availability of CBD-only products, which are nonpsychoactive cannabinoids in contrast to THC-containing products, the researchers said they expect to see more older adults turning to cannabis or cannabis-based products.

“The findings demonstrate the need for the clinical workforce to become aware of cannabis use by seniors and to gain awareness of both the benefits and risks of cannabis use in their patient population,” said Alison Moore, senior author and chief of the Division of Geriatrics in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Given the prevalence of use, it may be important to incorporate evidence-backed information about cannabis use into medical school and use screening questions about cannabis as a regular part of clinic visits.”

The researchers recommended more studies to better understand how different formulations of cannabis could treat older adults, “both to maximize benefits and minimize harm.”

“There seems to be potential with cannabis, but we need more evidence-based research. We want to find out how cannabis compares to current medications available," Kaufmann said. "Could cannabis be a safer alternative to treatments, such as opioids and benzodiazepines? Could cannabis help reduce the simultaneous use of multiple medications in older persons? We want to find out which conditions cannabis is most effective in treating. Only then can we better counsel older adults on cannabis use.”