Older Americans – people aged 65 or older – make up 15% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. By the end of this decade, or the year 2030, this proportion will increase to 21% – and all “baby boomers,” those born between 1946 and 1964, will be older than 65.1 Those demographic developments are occurring alongside a change in societal, legal, and public attitudes on cannabis.
Liberalization of cannabis laws across the United States allows for ever easier access to medicinal and recreational cannabis. Traditionally, cannabis use, its effects, and related considerations in the adolescent and young adult populations have commanded significant research attention. Cannabis use in older adults, however, is not as well studied.2 An exploration of trends in cannabis use by older adults and potential impact in terms of health is timely and important.
According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, cannabis use in adults aged 65 years and older appears to have been increasing steadily over the past 2 decades. Use among this group rose from 0.4% in 2006 and 2007, to 2.9% in 2015 and 2016.2 And, most recently, use climbed from 3.7% in 2017 to 4.2% in 2018.2
Cannabis use also has risen among other adults. For those aged 50-64, cannabis use increased from 2.8% in 2006-2007 to 4.8% in 2012-2013.2,3 Meanwhile, from 2015 to 2016, that number increased to 9.0%.3,4
Past-year cannabis use in the groups of those aged 50-64 and those aged 65 and older appears to be higher in individuals with mental health problems, alcohol use disorder, and nicotine dependence.5,6 Being male and being unmarried appear to be correlated with past-year cannabis use. Multimorbidity does not appear to be associated with past-year cannabis use. Those using cannabis tend to be long-term users and have first use at a much younger age, typically before age 21.
Older adults use cannabis for both recreational and perceived medical benefits. Arthritis, chronic back pain, anxiety, depression, relaxation, stress reduction, and enhancement in terms of creativity are all purported reasons for use. However, there is limited to no evidence for the efficacy of cannabis in helping with those conditions and purposes. Clinical trials have shown that cannabis can be beneficial in managing pain and nausea, but those trials have not been conducted in older adults.7,8
There is a real risk of cannabis use having a negative impact on the health of older adults. To begin with, the cannabis consumed today is significantly higher in potency than the cannabis that baby boomers were introduced to in their youth. The higher potency, combined with an age-related decline in function experienced by some older adults, makes them vulnerable to its known side effects, such as anxiety, dry mouth, tachycardia, high blood pressure, palpitations, wheezing, confusion, and dizziness.
Cannabis use is reported to bring a fourfold increase in cardiac events within the first hour of ingestion.9 Cognitive decline and memory impairment are well known adverse effects of cannabis use. Research has shown significant self-reported cognitive decline in older adults in relation to cannabis use.Cannabis metabolites are known to have an effect on, affecting the metabolism of medication, and increasing the susceptibility of older adults who use cannabis to adverse effects of polypharmacy. Finally, as research on emergency department visits by older adults shows, cannabis use can increase the risk of injury among this cohort.
As in the United States, cannabis use among older adults in Canada has increased significantly. The percentage of older adults who use cannabis in the Canadian province of Ontario, for example, reportedly doubled from 2005 to 2015. In response to this increase, and in anticipation of a rise in problematic use of cannabis and cannabis use disorder in older adults, the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health (through financial support from Substance Use and Addictions Program of Health Canada) has createdon the prevention, assessment, and management of cannabis use disorder in older adults.
In the absence of a set of guidelines specific to the United States, the recommendations made by the coalition should be helpful in the care of older Americans. Among other recommendations, the guidelines highlight the needs for primary care physicians to build a better knowledge base around the use of cannabis in older adults, to screen older adults for cannabis use, and to educate older adults and their families about the risk of cannabis use.9
Cannabis use is increasingly popular among older adults10 for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Research and data supporting its medical benefits are limited, and the potential of harm from its use among older adults is present and significant. Importantly, many older adults who use marijuana have co-occurring mental health issues and substance use disorder(s).
Often, our older patients learn about benefits and harms of cannabis from friends and the Internet rather than from physicians and other clinicians.9 We must do our part to make sure that older patients understand the potential negative health impact that cannabis can have on their health. Physicians should screen older adults for marijuana use. Building a better knowledge base around changing trends and views in/on the use and accessibility of cannabis will help physicians better address cannabis use in older adults.
Mr. Kaleka is a medical student in the class of 2021 at Central Michigan University College of Medicine, Mount Pleasant. He has no disclosures. Mr. Kaleka would like to thank his mentor,, for her continued guidance and support in research on mental health in vulnerable populations.
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