Johns Hopkins Study: Medical Cannabis Usage May Extend Older Adults’ Worklife

The majority of human clinical cannabis studies, sorely lacking in the US, use young and working age participants. Even though older adults experience many more health problems that can be relieved by medical cannabis, this demographic group has been largely ignored by researchers. This changed with the publication of a study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Policy and Management.

The premise was that medical cannabis laws (MML) may improve the health and employment prospects of older adults. Appearing in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management on February 6, 2019, the study is titled “The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on the Health and Labor Supply of Older Adults: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study. This article explains the findings of the study.

The summary of the findings of this 20-year study posited that older adults are more likely to drop out of the workforce due to poor health because of medical conditions associated with aging. Many of the symptoms of these conditions may be relieved by medical cannabis usage. The researchers examined the effects that state medical cannabis laws had on the health and labor supply of older adults living in those states. Extending the working capacity of older adults may reduce their need to deplete their retirement savings and/or delay applying for social security benefits.

In order to gain understanding of this demographic group, the study examined the effects of several health outcomes of older adults in states with medical cannabis programs.

These included:

  • Pain
  • Health conditions that limited work
  • Self-Assessment of health
  • Depression

The research data was collected from 1992-2012, using subjects 51 years of age and older. Participants were chosen based on having one or more symptoms thought to respond well to medical cannabis usage. The data was gathered from the Health and Retirement Study, which tracks health and labor market results for older Americans. Over 100,000 participants self-reported their experience of medical cannabis usage in multiple states with medical cannabis programs.

The results from the analyses were the following:

  • Older adults who live in states with MML reported a reduction in pain and an improvement in their general health
  • State MML lead to an increase in the number of older adults in the labor force
  • Those states with MML showed the largest effect on older adults with at least one qualifying health condition for their legal medical cannabis program
  • State MML translated into an increase in the ability of older adults to maintain full-time work for longer periods

The data was based on several small randomized controlled clinical trials that concluded that medical cannabis usage was effective in treating chronic pain, nausea and vomiting, anxiety, depression, psychosis, spasticity and sleep disorders.

  • 8% of participants reported a decrease in pain
  • 4% reported an increase in “very good or excellent health”
  • 5% increased full-time employment

Pain was the most common reason that older adults sought medical cannabis. The majority of participants reported that medical cannabis alleviated their symptoms as effectively as prescription medications without the adverse side effects. Many were able to decrease their opioid usage.

A 2018 study, Association Between US State Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Prescribing in the Medicare Part D Population, was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine. Conducted by Bradford, et al., the results of the study found that elderly and disabled Medicare patients filled fewer opioid prescriptions in states with medical cannabis programs.

The following declines in prescription refills were as follows:

  • 7% for pain medications
  • 5% for anxiety medications
  • 4% for nausea medications
  • 5% for psychosis medications

A 2017 study by Sabia, Swigert and Young indicated that in states with MML, the likelihood of being obese declines by 2-6%. A general trend that researchers noticed in states with MML was a decrease in the number of days reported of a physical and mental health decline. Respondents reported an increase in physical activity.

As medical cannabis usage gains more and more acceptance across the country, the impetus behind publishing this study is to open up policy discussions about changing the laws regarding medical cannabis. The intention is to push for more support for human clinical research trials which are lacking. Removing cannabis from the Schedule 1 Controlled Substance List at the federal level would allow much more extensive research to move forward., Medical Marijuana May Increase Productivity in Older Adults, Johns Hopkins Study Suggests, Zachary Babo, March 20, 2019, The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on the Health and Labor Supply of Older Adults: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study, Lauren Hersch Nicholas and Johanna Catherine Maclean, Feb 6, 2019