In the midst of a vaping crisis that has largely been traced to THC-containing products, much of the discussion around marijuana has centered on young adults. But a new study in the Journal of American Medicine this week suggests high usage among another demographic: seniors.
Conducted by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, the study found that the past-year use of cannabis among those 65 and older had increased from 2.4 percent to 4.2 percent from 2015 to 2018 — a 75 percent increase over the course of three years. The number follows a major spike in use among seniors in the last decade, up from just 0.7 percent reporting yearly use of marijuana in 2006.
Data for the study came from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationwide survey that’s conducted yearly by the National Institutes of Health in all 50 states. The survey allowed researchers to zero in on certain subgroups in the category of those who shared their recent marijuana use. Particular increases appeared among women, married individuals, the college-educated, and those who drink alcohol.
While the increase among women over 65 may seem surprising, senior author Joseph Palamar, PhD, an associate professor of population health and NYU Grossman School of Medicine, says it’s likely more about the increasing destigmatization of marijuana use that’s driving up use. “Women 'catching up' to men may further signify normalization of use,” Palamar tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “However, men are still almost twice as likely to use than women.”
On top of those subgroups, researchers also found use to have more than doubled among patients with diabetes, which over 100 million Americans live with today. Recent studies have shown that cannabis has therapeutic potential for the difficult-to-treat condition, specifically due to its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s just one of many potential medical benefits of the drug that has emerged. Other conditions for which marijuana has proved beneficial include chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, wasting syndrome and epilepsy.
Lead author Benjamin Han, MD, assistant professor of geriatric medicine and palliative care at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, has a theory for why the researchers saw a spike in marijuana use among those with diabetes. “I suspect [it] may be related to [nerve damage],” Han tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There is some consistent evidence that cannabis is of benefit for patients with neuropathy, and therefore could explain the increase in its use by people with diabetes. However, we are unable to tell from our study if this is the case.”
Han is also quick to note that while the drug likely has benefits, it’s not necessarily harmless for this age group. Iowa University researchers are currently exploring the potential for marijuana to put seniors more at risk of falling, for example — but there may also be other things to consider. “Certainly, with any drug with psychoactive properties, I worry about dizziness and falls, as well as cognitive changes over time for older adults,” Han tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In addition, more study is needed to better understand if there is an association of lung disease or heart disease with smoking cannabis. Finally, for people of all ages cannabis use can be habit-forming over time and lead to cannabis-use disorder.”
In an interview with MedicalResearch.com, Han said it’s important to take these risks into account, as seniors may be “more vulnerable” to the harms of cannabis. But it may be equally important to weigh the fact that seniors are likely to “benefit most from its use due to their higher burden of chronic medical disease.” Overall, he says much more research is needed to determine whether it’s a safe solution.
As experts continue to explore this, doctors who treat the elderly — like Caroline S. Blaum, MD, director of the division of geriatric medicine and palliative care at NYU — say that the revelation is crucial to offering the best care. “This study gives us important insights into cannabis use among key groups of older adults, particularly baby boomers,” Blaum said in a statement. “Understanding how our older patients use marijuana and evaluating the potential effects is one of the most important questions our field must answer.”
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