There are two things guaranteed to happen each day for the average cannabis consumer. The first fact is that we all get a little bit older every day. The second constant in many Canadians’ lives is cannabis. How do these two aspects of daily life impact one another? In the following article, we’ll explore what the most recent research says about aging and cannabis.
Getting Older and Using Cannabis
We can learn much from new research exploring the world of cannabis and aging. Unfortunately, the major headline is that we do not know enough about this topic – more research is needed.
That said, some fascinating studies give us an early look at what effects cannabis may have on aging. Several systematic reviews published recently help provide an overview of the current state of the evidence. While there is much more we expect to learn in the coming years, let’s see what we know now.
Since research has heavily focused on the harms of cannabis, most of our understanding is based on the lack of negative findings. In other words, researchers have not looked toward the benefits of cannabis in any substantial way these last few decades.
Here is a perfect example of what we mean. A study from 1999 attempted to find a decline in cognitive abilities in a 12-year study. They specifically wanted to seek out the adverse effects of cannabis use on those under 65. In summary, they didn’t find much (Lyketsos et al., 1999).
For example, the major finding was a lack of significant differences between heavy, light, and non-users of cannabis regarding cognitive decline over the 12 years. The lack of noticeable differences also extended to male-female differences related to consuming cannabis (Lyketsos et al., 1999).
Overall, average and minor cognitive decline was seen across all individuals in this study – mediated by aging and educational level – but not affected by cannabis habits (Lyketsos et al., 1999).
1. The Growth of Research
Since that study, we have continued to explore cannabis and aging to help expand our understanding. We now have collections of studies we can use to analyze trends in the research literature. A perfect example is a systematic review by Scott and his team (2019). These researchers reviewed 26 studies exploring the cognitive outcomes of using cannabis.
The studies included a wide range of populations and different study conditions. Overall, they wanted to see whether cannabis may offer neuroprotective benefits of cognitive risks in older adults. In summary, they found that “modest reductions in cognitive performance” were detected. But, these declines were associated with higher doses and a heavier lifetime use overall (Scott et al., 2019).
These findings highlight the importance of moderate and responsible cannabis consumption. This is especially important for recreational consumers who are not under the supervision of a medical professional.
2. Older Adults and Concerns over Cannabis
Understanding more about how cannabis impacts aging is critical. It is equally essential to spread this information to those who need it. Communication with older adults is lacking, which is unfortunate because this group is rapidly turning to cannabis, and they are also further along the aging curve to start. And so, it is essential to learn more about how cannabis may impact their aging and get this message across to older adults.
For example, a study from Colorado found that older adults were starting to use cannabis at a higher rate than all other age groups. The researchers also noted plenty of stigma getting in the way of conversations, especially with health professionals and older adults. Some of the biggest concerns of older adults were a lack of (Bobitt et al., 2019):
- Education about cannabis
- Research on cannabis and older adults
- Healthcare provider communication
- Access to medical cannabis
- Interest in discussing cannabis use
This study highlights areas of stigma and concern that need to be improved around cannabis education. While these concerns broadly apply to all adults considering cannabis, older adults need unique cannabis health messaging strategies. This health messaging should encourage talking to health professionals about prescription medications and cannabis (Bobitt et al., 2019).
3. Medical Cannabis and the Elderly
One consistent finding that occurs in all age groups around medical cannabis use relates to other medications. Studies continuously find that adults reduce their pharmaceutical usage over time when using medical cannabis. This includes reductions in drugs like opioids (Abuhasira et al., 2018).
But, particular medications may be negatively affected by cannabis. This is why older adults are strongly encouraged to talk to health professionals about weed. Medicines with a narrow therapeutic window are susceptible to cannabis usage. Safety must remain the top concern so that you can optimize the benefits of cannabis.
For example, older adults most commonly use cannabis to help manage pain and cancer. After six months of treatment, this study found that 93.7% of patients reported improvement in their condition. Furthermore, the number of reported falls was reduced (falls can be a significant danger for older adults). Studies like this one keep finding that medical cannabis can be safely and effectively used by the elderly population (Abuhasira et al., 2018).
4. The Effects of THC on Aging and Cognition
A brand new systematic review released in 2021 offers a close look at six studies exploring aging and cannabis. Of these studies, the three involving humans found pretty much nothing. The other three studies involved rodents and a closer look at how THC exposure can impact cognition. You’ll be amazed at what they found.
These well-controlled rodent studies found that age and THC exposure levels interact in fascinating ways. They found that low doses of THC improved cognition in elderly rodents. Slightly higher doses given over time led to improved cognition in aged rodents (Pocuca et al., 2021). You may be wondering how this all makes sense?
Unfortunately, as we stated earlier – we need more research. Aging is a fascinating but complex physiological process influenced by every action we take each day. Overall, these studies indicate no big flashing warning signs for cannabis (other than prescription drugs – see a doctor about those).
That said, moderate and responsible consumption of lower doses is likely better for cognition than higher doses of THC. We’d like to include a quick look at CBD, but this same systematic review noted no studies on this topic (Pocuca et al., 2021).
5. How Cannabis Impacts Your Overall Health
One final study we’ll explore helps provide some fantastic data on how long-term cannabis consumption affects our health as we age. There are no other studies like this one out there right now. The team of researchers kept track of over 1000 participants over 20 years. The volunteers were first surveyed at 18 with several follow-ups until the final one at 38-years-old. At every point in time, physical health and cannabis consumption habits were assessed (Meier et al., 2017).
So, what did they find?
The young adults who used cannabis in their midlife did not have more physical health problems than non-consumers. Across most measures, there were no significant differences between users and non-users. The measures included lung health, systemic inflammation, glucose levels, cholesterol, and others (Meier et al., 2017).
There was one measure where cannabis consumers were worse and one where they were better than non-users. The bad news, 20-years of using cannabis does appear to increase the odds of periodontal disease. The good news is that the same group had better metabolic health (Meier et al., 2017).
Oral health is a potential problem for cannabis consumers. We do not know if this is solely from smoking or if it is related to something in cannabis. The best thing you can do is take good care of your dental health – brush and floss daily.
In terms of metabolic benefits, the group of cannabis consumers was better off in several exciting ways. For example, they had lower BMI, small waist circumference, and better glucose/lipid regulation (Meier et al., 2017).
Great work making it through this look at the effects of cannabis on aging. While the research may be dense, the content is of utmost importance. Older adults are using cannabis more than ever, and we need to know how cannabis may help or harm these people. The same goes for young adults who could be using cannabis for decades – we need to learn more.
In summary, we saw that the evidence around cannabis and aging is not strong enough to draw any firm conclusions. Older adults may benefit from cannabis regarding cognition, but careful attention should be paid to prescription drugs and cannabis health education. More broadly, adults who consume cannabis over long periods should devote extra attention to their oral health.
Abuhasira, R., Schleider, L., Mechoulam, R., & Novack, V. (2018). Epidemiological characteristics, safety and efficacy of medical cannabis in the elderly. Eur. J. Intern. Med. 49, 44–50. Available online: https://www.ejinme.com/article/S0953-6205(18)30019-0/fulltext.
Bobitt, J., Qualls, S., Schuchman, M. et al. Qualitative analysis of cannabis use among older adults in Colorado. Drugs Aging 36, 655–666. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40266-019-00665-w.
Lyketsos, C., Garrett, E., Liang, K., &Anthony, J. (1999). Cannabis use and cognitive decline in persons under 65 years of age. American Journal of Epidemiology, 149, 9(1), pp. 794–800. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.aje.a009894.
Meier, M., Caspi, A., Cerdá, M., et al. (2016). Associations between cannabis use and physical health problems in early midlife: A longitudinal comparison of persistent cannabis vs tobacco users. JAMA Psychiatry, 73(7), 731–740. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0637.
Pocuca, N., Walter, T., Minassian, A., Young, J., Geyer, M., & Perry, W. (2021). The effects of cannabis use on cognitive function in healthy aging: A systematic scoping review. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 36, 5, 673–685, https://doi.org/10.1093/arclin/acaa105.
Scott, E, Brennan, E. & Benitez, A. (2019). A systematic review of the neurocognitive effects of cannabis use in older adults. Curr Addict Rep 6, 443–455. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40429-019-00285-9.