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The Rise of Cannabis use among seniors

Posted: April 2, 2021 in News

Cannabis Usage Is Trending Upwards in Seniors

A New York University School of Medicine study tracking the prevalence of cannabis usage in adults 65 and older shows an upward trend. In this article, I will cite the study, discuss the methodology and the findings. 

I will also list the reasons that many seniors are turning to medical cannabis to treat their medical conditions and to improve their quality of life. Finally, I will cite a second study in which some different findings were reported.

NY University School of Medicine Study on Cannabis Use in Older Adults

The study, Trends in Cannabis Use Among Older Adults in the United States, 2015-2018, was published in JAMA Network on February 24, 2020. The survey information was gathered and analyzed by Dr. Benjamin Han and Dr. Joseph Palamar of New York University School Of Medicine, New York. It was funded by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Methodology

The data was gathered from secondary analysis of adults 65+ based on survey information during 2015-2018 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Participants were asked about the prevalence of their past-year cannabis usage regarding their consumption of the following:

Marijuana, hashish, pot, grass and hash oil either smoked or ingested 

There were no questions about the use of topicals and pills and they were not asked to specify if they used THC and/or CBD.

There were 14,896 respondents, living in a non-institutionalized setting, (not a nursing home) of which 55% were men and 77.1% were white.

Study Findings

The authors calculated the absolute and relative change in prevalence of cannabis usage between 2015-2018 and concluded that it increased from 2.4%-4.2% during that period of time.

The key subgroups experiencing significant increases in cannabis use included: women, racial/ethnic minorities, higher family income, mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, diabetics and those who regularly consume alcohol.

  • 93% increase by women versus a 58% increase by men. It is important to note that almost twice as many men as women typically use cannabis products.
  • 114% increase by those college-educated versus a 17% increase by those with a high school diploma or less.
  • 129% increase by those with a household income of $75,000+
  • 138% increase by those with a household income of $20,000-$50,000 
  • 16% increase by those with a household income of less than $20,000
  • 3% increase by those with a household income of $50,000-$75,000
  • 100% increase by married seniors versus 45% increase by singles
  • 96% increase of those seniors with only one medical condition versus 29% increase for those with two or more chronic conditions
  • In 2015, 2.9% used both alcohol and cannabis versus in 2018, 6.3% used both alcohol and cannabis

Although the survey did not ask about potential medical benefits, the authors believe that the majority of senior consumers use cannabis to relieve pain, for insomnia and to treat mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Dr. Palamar thinks that many seniors are using cannabis more medically than recreationally. He also believes that the increase is reflected by seniors who are not first-time users. They probably used it in their 20s, stopped for several decades, and are embracing it again in their 60s.

Risk Factors of Cannabis Usage in Seniors

The study authors cautioned the use of cannabis by seniors with the following concerns:

The potency of cannabis products found in dispensaries today are much stronger than those of the 1970s and 1980s when many seniors last used cannabis. This may cause dizziness and potential for falls, especially for those living alone.

Cannabis products also interact with other medications, especially blood thinners. 

Reasons That Seniors Use Cannabis

Alternative to Prescription Medications

The average 65-year-old is taking 4-5 prescription medications. Many are turning to cannabis to replace some or all of their medications, especially opioids, which have several adverse side effects. Opioid prescriptions among seniors who live in legal cannabis states have fallen by 14%.

Retirement

Many seniors are either semi-retired or completely retired, allowing them much more free time to explore the world of cannabis products. They are also much less likely to be constrained by employment-related drug tests.

Industry Adaptation

The cannabis industry is adapting to the needs of senior medical cannabis patients by offering the following:

  • Senior Discounts
  • Specialized Shuttle Buses
  • Extended-Release Products
  • Lower Potency Products
  • Alternative Delivery Methods to Smoking and Vaping
  • Home Delivery for the Housebound

Emily Feinstein, Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at the Center on Addiction is not surprised by this trend for the following reasons:

Those 65 and older are most likely to experience pain and other chronic conditions.

Regulated cannabis products through dispensaries are now more available than at any other time.

The stigma surrounding cannabis usage is slowly disappearing as its usage has become more and more acceptable.

The University of California Study on Cannabis Use in Older Adults

Another study, Older Adults Using Cannabis To Treat Common Health Conditions, was conducted at the University of California at San Diego School of Medicine. It was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on October 7, 2020.

Participants were seen at the Medicine for Seniors Clinic at the University of California San Diego Health over the course of ten weeks.

Study Findings

568 patients were surveyed for this study. 15% had used cannabis within the past three years, half of whom reported using it on a regular basis, mostly for medical reasons. 61% of participants who had used cannabis started using it after the age of 60. The new users were more likely to use a topical lotion over smoking and edibles. They were also more likely to disclose their cannabis usage to their physicians.

The study authors also concluded, based on the increased availability of CBD-only, non-psychotropic products, that future surveys will likely reflect a significant increase in the percentage of older adults using cannabis-based products for the first time. In response to this increase in usage, it may be time to educate medical students about cannabis use, including the implementation of screening questions about cannabis as a standard part of clinic care.

Sources:

statnews.com, Cannabis Use Among Older Adults Is On The Rise, Study Says, Shafaq Zia, Feb. 24, 2020

JAMANetwork.com, Trends in Cannabis Use Among Older Adults in the United States, 2015-2018, Feb. 24, 2020

sciencedaily.com, Older Adults Using Cannabis To Treat Common Health Conditions, Oct. 7, 2020, University of California, San Diego

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