Medical Marijuana: A Boon for Older Adults?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The pain older adults suffer is widespread: half of this population who live independently and about 80% of those who live in long-term care facilities suffer from chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health.

As medical marijuana gains traction across the US, should older adults seek its use?

That depends upon whom one asks.

“Marijuana has shown to be beneficial for pain and anxiety not just in older adults but for many adults, for chronic pain, particularly cancer pain, anxiety and depression and severe nausea,” said Rochester-based physician Joanne Wu, who practices in Buffalo.

But she’s hesitant about its effects on older adults, since marijuana also brings psychoactive side effects and “for some it will make them more anxious, depressed, confused, tired,” Wu said. “This will be associated with higher fall risk and poorer quality of life.”

To take medical marijuana, patients must have physician approval to obtain it at a legal dispensary. Canabidoil, also known as CBD, is a supplement from the hemp plant which contains only minute traces of THC, the compound inherent to marijuana that causes hallucinogenic effects. It’s available over the counter since it’s a supplement and therefore not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration.

“CBD, ingested or topical, is an option to alleviate symptoms if medically supervised use of marijuana is not tolerated,” Wu said.

Conferring with a doctor about taking either is a good idea to avoid any negative prescription interactions.

For a generation that took recreational marijuana, taking prescribed marijuana may seem a more natural course than conventional pain medication.

Physician Robert S. Stall, owner of Stall Senior Medical in Amherst, feels wary about any substances people might take. “We want to minimize prescriptions,” he said. “If cannabis can supplant other things that are usually given to take care of issues like chronic pain or seizure disorders, I could see some potential.”

He views the possibilities of medical marijuana, however, he expressed caution about the lack of studies on medical marijuana and older adults.

If medical marijuana isn’t smoked but taken orally or topically, the experience may be quite different for those who experimented with it recreationally in the past, since its effects take more time to begin and last longer.

Part of that may be because medical marijuana is more of a nutrac eutical containing many different compounds than a lab-derived pain medication. Consistency in the product can be hard to achieve.

The age of the patients involved also can make a difference. In their 20s, their faster moving metabolism handled marijuana differently than now, when a slower metabolism, other medication and age-related disease processes can impact how marijuana affects the body.

“It’s exciting to have something new and potentially effective and with fewer side effects, but there haven’t been studies to any great extent with seniors as to side effects,” Stall said. “The benefits may outweigh the risks.”

Further research could help physicians know whether medical marijuana could help older adults; however, like any medication, it’s a tough age group to study because most have several health conditions and other prescriptions. Long-term studies are difficult because their health status can change over the years, which complicates the study.