With age, older adults are more likely to turn to alternative medicines. Medical marijuana is included on the list of alternative treatments, although some stigma still exists.
Patients and practitioners, however, are working together to better understand how medical marijuana for seniors can be safely used instead of abused. Ahead, discover answers to caregiver questions like, “How can seniors benefit from medical marijuana?”
Medical Marijuana for Seniors: Brief Overview
Medical marijuana, also known as medical cannabis, is marijuana recommended for medical reasons by a doctor for the treatment of certain health conditions. It may be helpful for some populations, such as those dealing with the following diseases or disorders:
- Cancer (chemotherapy side effects, in particular, i.e. nausea or vomiting)
- Certain types of sclerosis or muscle spasms, such as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Severe or chronic pain
- Seizure disorders (i.e. epilepsy)
- Some memory-impairing disorders (i.e. Alzheimer’s disease)
- Weight loss or loss of appetite due to HIV/AIDS
It’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not cleared cannabis for any specific medical use. However, it is used in some states under a doctor’s direction as a form of treatment.
Marijuana comes from cannabis plants, specifically plants that include the compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Plants high in THC are commonly associated with psychoactive properties. The “high” experienced when consuming products from these plants may be linked to certain health benefits.
Cannabinoids, like the popular cannabidiol (CBD), come from cannabis plants called hemp plants. Hemp plants are similar to marijuana plants, but are instead strains that contain little to no THC. Legally, CBD products must contain 0.3% THC or less, making the THC virtually undetectable and not likely to cause any sort of “high.”
How Can Seniors Benefit from Medical Marijuana?
Depending on your day-to-day symptoms, medical marijuana may improve your quality of life. Many seniors deal with the above-listed conditions, suffering day-to-day problems like chronic pain.
Your doctor may recommend medical marijuana if you are 65 or older and consistently struggling to manage one, or more, of the following problems:
- Chronic pain
- Sleep hygiene
The number of senior cannabis users is increasing, especially in the last decade. Especially when used under medical direction and in the presence of a caregiver, the stigma of “getting high” is becoming less and less of an issue. In other words, doctor-recommended marijuana is not considered recreational “drug use” like in years past, and may actually be a key part of your health plan as you age.
Safety Risks & Considerations
Legality of medical marijuana use differs by state. As of February 2022, 37 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia allow for the use of medical cannabis products. The doctor suggesting use will likely be aware of your state’s regulations and be able to answer common questions regarding use.
As with using any other substance, you’ll want to weigh the risks and benefits.Additionally, long term side effects are still being studied. In other words, it’s important to learn how to use medical marijuana properly to reduce the risk of abusing it.
Adverse effects are possible, so it’s recommended that you aren’t alone when trying medical marijuana for the first time. Having a spouse or caregiver in the house with you can help you manage potential side effects.
Common side effects include:
- Impaired cognitive functioning (i.e. concentration or memory problems)
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increase in appetite (could lead to weight gain)
- Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Orthostatic hypotension (dizziness upon standing)
- Potential for addiction or withdrawal symptoms
- Slower reaction time or decreased alertness
Polypharmacy, or juggling more than one medication at a time for a specific condition, is common among seniors. Adding medical marijuana in the mix can complicate matters and even cause potential drug interactions (especially with blood thinners or blood pressure medications). Additionally, slower reaction time and dizziness upon standing is linked to an increased risk for fractures and falls.
Since marijuana is a psychoactive substance, it’s also possible that seniors using the substance may experience hallucinations. Those with a history of mental illness may find this especially disturbing, making it important to exercise caution. It may also be safer for individuals with impaired memory to only use medical marijuana when a caregiver is present.
The potential for addiction to marijuana also exists, making it important to evaluate your personal level of risk before consuming. It can be helpful to meet with a professional if you’ve dealt with substance abuse in the past. Long-term, recreational marijuana use (generally starting in the teens) is linked with an increased risk for health problems later in life, so it’s important to weigh the benefits and risks.
Unfortunately, many reports of accidental consumption by minors have occurred, so it’s important to store your medical marijuana in a place where your grandkids or children can’t access it. Some forms of THC look like candy, which can seem enticing to young children. However, accidental exposure can cause severe symptoms and even send them to the hospital.
In any case, the body goes through both physical and psychological changes as it ages. Just because you were able to tolerate marijuana when you were younger does not automatically mean you’ll tolerate medical marijuana well in your later years. The number of seniors visiting the ER due to cannabis-related causes has skyrocketed in recent years, making it even more prudent to be aware of potential side effects.
Medical marijuana is considered an out-of-pocket expense, meaning it will most likely not be covered by insurance. Costs can vary widely based on the type of product and the amount of THC. To complicate matters, some states place taxes on cannabis products to account for the cost of cultivating marijuana crops.
Luckily, some states have programs that help provide medical marijuana to low-income individuals. Ask your doctor about these programs or non-profit organizations that may be able to help connect you with a discount.
CBD vs Medical Marijuana for Seniors
As mentioned above, THC and CBD are two different substances. Older patients and their caregivers should carefully inspect product labels to determine whether their item contains CBD or THC. Both have reported benefits and risks, and you may find that CBD is a better fit than THC for you.
For more skeptical seniors, topical ointments can be a great way to ease into using cannabis products. These items often have a lower rate of absorption into the bloodstream than products that are ingested (like gummies, oral strips, or inhaled products).
Starting with CBD oil or sublingual (under-the-tongue) tinctures may allow you to experience subtle improvements before diving into the full-strength stuff. Keep in mind that CBD is often available in three forms, isolate, broad-spectrum, and full-spectrum. Full-spectrum CBD contains a small amount of THC (0.3% or less), and maybe a good starting point to help you discover if you’re THC-sensitive.
Whether you’re using CBD or THC, you’ll want to disclose the use of these substances to your doctor. Involving your healthcare team can help you determine what side effects may be involved and help reduce the risk of potential drug interactions.
How to Get Medical Marijuana
The process for obtaining medical marijuana does differ by state. In most cases, you’ll first meet with a doctor that recommends usage. In states where recreational use is prohibited, you’ll also need some sort of referral to get a medical marijuana card. Then, you’ll be able to take your card to a dispensary and select the appropriate product.
Finding a dispensary is relatively easy! Usually, your doctor will recommend a facility in the area. Alternatively, you can simply use a search engine like Google to find “dispensaries near me.”
Once you’ve gone through this process, you’ll want to explore different forms to find what is right for you. Currently, medical marijuana comes in many of the following convenient forms to help meet your unique needs:
- Capsules or pills
- Dried leaves
Side effects are often most strong with inhaled forms of marijuana, such as vaporized or smoked forms. Since the contents of pills enter the bloodstream through the digestive tract, side effects may be milder. Capsules and pills are also considered beginner-friendly because they offer the same amount each time you take them.
Vaping THC products, in particular, have been linked to some cases of lung injury. Since not all vaping products are created equal, it may be worth avoiding these products until they are declared safe to use for seniors.
While not all dispensary workers are educated in the same way, most will be able to assist you in selecting a product that is right for you. Like supplements, you may want to seek out products that go through third-party testing to ensure purity, quality, and safety.
In Conclusion: Medical Marijuana for Seniors
Medical marijuana has become one of the more popular treatment options in recent years, and seniors have picked up on this trend. The stigma of “getting high” or “stoned” is starting to die out as the elderly utilize medical marijuana for a number of common problems associated with age.
If you’re interested in medical marijuana, talk to your doctor to find out if this course of treatment could be a good fit for you.
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