Seniors and Medical Cannabis: Is it Right for You?

Seniors and Medical Cannabis: Is it Right for You?

You’ve heard it called many names over the years. Weed, reefer, hash, grass, or even the quaint “Mary Jane.” Whatever you call it, marijuana – known as cannabis in medical circles – has been in the news quite a bit lately. The reason: doctors are discovering the potentially significant medical benefits of this drug that your parents used to warn you about.

Until 1996, cannabis was illegal everywhere. It couldn’t be used legally for any reason, recreationally or medicinally. But that began to change as more and more people realized the medical benefits of marijuana – and soon, doctors and even legislators began to recognize the untapped power of a drug that could promote pain relief, ease seizures, and even help improve memory. For years, many cancer patients and people living in severe physical pain had been using marijuana in secret, without any regulation or oversight.

Today, 38 states have created some form of legalized marijuana usage, often as a medicine. Medical cannabis dispensaries have popped up all over the U.S. as individuals seek a more natural way to handle some ailments. It’s been labelled the “plants, not pills” movement.

That said, marijuana is still known as a Schedule I substance. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, that means that it is a drug not only with a potential for abuse but one “with no currently accepted medical use.”1

Many doctors and patients across the country beg to differ. And many of those patients are over the age of 65.

What is Cannabis?

Cannabis is the scientific name for marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the Cannabis sativa or the Cannabis indica plant. These parts of the plant contain THC, a psychoactive compound that can lead to a “high” that includes an altered sense of space and time, changes in mood, and altered senses.2

In some states, marijuana is legal to purchase for recreational use. In other states, it is available and legal for use as a medical supplement. If you’ve ever heard of a “medical marijuana” card, that is essentially a prescription from a doctor saying that you are eligible to purchase a certain amount of cannabis from an approved retailer for medical purposes.

There are other forms of cannabis known as extracts. Extracts might be in liquid form (like the popular CBD oil) or in a wax or solid. These can provide the benefits of the cannabis without the need to smoke or ingest the plant in the traditional ways. For some, extracts might work even better than typical cannabis does.

Though the traditional route of using marijuana is through smoking it, that is frowned upon as it can cause serious respiratory problems. Instead, the drug is often ingested as an “edible” – usually baked into a brownie or cookie – or the extracts are used for a more direct delivery into your body.

Cannabis Use and a Little Girl Named Charlotte

How did marijuana go from being that “hippie drug” that was sold on street corners to a relatively common medicinal treatment used to ease a variety of ailments? It started with a little girl named Charlotte Figi.

Even as a tiny infant, Charlotte had epileptic seizures that made it impossible to live anything resembling a normal life. At one point she was having 300 grand mal seizures each week – an absolutely astounding number.

Her mother was desperate to find a solution. Pharmaceuticals weren’t helping. She began looking into alternative methods to ease her daughter’s seizures.

She created a concoction that included CBD oil from the cannabis plant. She used instructions she found online and created the medicine in her kitchen sink – she had no safeguards that would come from creating it in a laboratory. But even so, Charlotte’s seizures began to lessen as she took the homemade medicine, and soon she was having almost no seizures at all.

That original strain of cannabis is now called “Charlotte’s Web” and it helps ease epileptic seizures for many patients who can’t find anything else that works.

Understanding the Role of Medical Marijuana in Senior Health

What does this have to do with senior health?

Seniors are the fastest growing group of cannabis users in the United States. In the three years between 2015 and 2018, the use of cannabis by seniors jumped 75%. Today, that increase continues. As more states legalize marijuana for recreational use or for medicinal purposes while under the supervision of a physician, a surprising number of elderly adults are choosing to partake.3

Medical marijuana is known to promote relaxation and pain relief, which in turn can ease anxiety and depression. Using cannabis can lead to better sleep and promote weight gain in seniors who have nutritional deficits. And for some, cannabis can quell seizures and might possibly help those who suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

When cannabis was first legalized for medicinal use, it was very heavily regulated – much more so than it is today – and was usually prescribed for those who were undergoing chemotherapy or similar treatments. Because these patients were on so many drugs to treat their condition, adding even more pharmaceuticals to the mix could have life-threatening consequences. However, that often left the patient with a terrible choice: try another drug added to the already dangerous mix or deal with the pain of the cancer and the treatment.

Medical marijuana solved that problem. Since it isn’t a pharmaceutical drug, the odds of interaction with other drugs were much lower. It allowed for pain relief, relaxation, and could potentially enhance other treatments. As patients learned about the benefits, the demand for medical cannabis began to rise.

Today, the drug is prescribed for a wide variety of illnesses and chronic conditions. From easing the pain of arthritis to battling severe insomnia, doctors are finding many reasons to prescribe it.

But while some scientists are excited about the potential benefits of cannabis for those who suffer from a wide variety of chronic conditions, there are also some downsides.

A Potential Increase in the Risk of Falls

If you choose to use medical cannabis in any form, it’s vitally important to have an emergency alert system at your fingertips. That’s because any use of cannabis can lead to a greater risk of falls. Falling down is already a serious threat for the elderly, as bones weakened by age can break more easily; in fact, falls are the most common cause of hip fractures in the elderly and traumatic brain injuries in anyone of any age, according to the CDC.

The side effects of cannabis use contribute to the fall risk. These can include:

·        Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

·        Drowsiness and fatigue

·        A depressive effect on the respiratory system

·        The potential for high blood pressure

Another potential problem is known as “stacking.” This is when a person winds up with too much cannabis in their body through a common mistake.

Imagine that you have chosen to take a dose of cannabis in some sort of edible, such as a gummy or brownie. You ingest the edible and wait for the drug to take effect. After an hour, you feel absolutely nothing, so you decide that the dose was too low and have another edible.

However, the original dose wasn’t too low – it was just taking a while to “kick in.” That means that by the time the second one kicks in, you now have too much cannabis in your system, and you can feel side effects strong enough to send you to the emergency room.

If you are using cannabis for any reason and at any dosage, remember to keep your medical fall alert on you at all times. If you suffer a fall or other accident at any time of the day or night, you can press the emergency button alert and get help right away.

Should you Speak to Your Doctor About Cannabis?

If you live in a state where medical use of cannabis is legal, your doctor might have already mentioned it to you as a way to combat the symptoms of some chronic conditions. Since it may be a more natural alternative to many pharmaceutical drugs, some doctors choose to offer it as a potential treatment for their patients who prefer to live a more natural lifestyle.

As mentioned earlier, using cannabis doesn’t necessarily mean smoking it – and in fact, smoking anything can have negative effects on your respiratory system. That’s why much safer routes, such as ingesting the product in an edible form or using it as oil placed under the tongue, are a great idea for those seniors and elderly adults who choose to use cannabis.

No matter what you and your doctor decide is the best route for you, make sure to look into medical alert systems for seniors before exploring medical cannabis use. Whether you choose to use cannabis or not, the fall risk still exists and becomes greater as you get older. Having a personal emergency response system at your fingertips provides incredible peace of mind that if anything happens, you can reach out to get help right away.