Photo: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

5 Ways Cannabis Can Help Us As We Age

Photo: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

 
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by April M. Short

on November 24, 2014

As a society, our seniors are suffering. The health problems associated with aging — everything from joint pain and arthritis to depression and more serious illnesses like cancer—are typically treated with opiates and other pharmaceutical medications that numb, rather than fix, the problem.

According to data collected for the U.S. government (via the service IMS Health), 55 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers were written last year for people 65 and up. This marked a 20 percent increase over five years, and almost double the growth rate of the nationwide senior population. The number of benzodiazepine prescriptions climbed 12 percent over that period, to 28.4 million.

This is especially tragic since there already exists a safe plant medicine that can successfully mitigate — and sometimes cure — many of those health problems: cannabis.

Cannabis has been used in healing for thousands of years. Countless patients in the 23 US states that allow legal access to cannabis for medical purposes have used it for decades to treat pain, nausea, inflammation and dozens of other symptoms. While the majority of medical marijuana patients are younger people, seniors are increasingly turning to cannabis for help for their pain and psychological problems.

Sue Taylor, a metaphysical minister, retired Catholic school principal and grandmother from Oakland, California, is leading the charge to educate seniors about the many potential health benefits of cannabis.

She is the senior outreach coordinator for Oakland’s enormous Harborside Health Center medical cannabis dispensary. Her job is to educate seniors who, like she once did, often think of marijuana as anything but a legitimate medicine. She sits on the Commission on Aging in Alameda County and visits retirement homes and senior groups. She also hosts luncheons and seminars to educate people about various cannabis medicine options.

Taylor, now a medical cannabis user herself, was raised to believe cannabis was a dangerous drug. Since it was (and still is) a Schedule I illegal drug at the federal level, she, like many Americans, bought into the widespread myth that it was addictive and unsafe. However, at the urging of her son, she eventually began to research the herb. Pages upon pages of scientific documents taught her that just the opposite was true.

She learned that cannabis medicine can be non-psychoactive and doesn’t have to be smoked — it can be eaten, swallowed in a pill-like capsulate, dripped into a beverage as a tincture, applied to the skin like a creme or inhaled as a light vapor.  It’s generally safer and more effective than synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, especially for the elderly — and is often much cheaper.

Over time, she became convinced that it was her duty to help connect seniors with the healing plant.

“The more and more I learned, this is what I found out: The seniors are in such bad health; they’re kind of miserable,” she said. “When they develop medical problems they are prescribed all these pharmaceuticals, which really knock them out, and they are left to die. And so number one my job and my compassion is to help them realize who they really are, and that it doesn’t have to be that way.”

While the US government has an effective blockade in place when it comes to any research of cannabis performed independently of the government — i.e. anything that might show its medical benefits — there is plenty of information out there, collected internationally and amongst patients, proving its potentially miraculous benefits for seniors.

Here are five common senior health issues that cannabis has the potential to mitigate:

Chronic pain

Cannabis has long been known to reduce pain, and it has even shown to be more effective than the leading prescription treatments on the market in clinical trials.

According to an article on WebMD,  “Three puffs a day of cannabis, better known as marijuana, helps people with chronic nerve pain due to injury or surgery feel less pain and sleep better.” The WebMD article summarized a placebo-controlled clinical trial using three different doses of cannabis. The study took place in Canada in 2010, and was led by Mark Ware, MD, assistant professor of anesthesia and family medicine at McGill University in Montreal.

According to a study published in August by JAMA Internal Medicine, cannabis’ might actually be helping reduce abuse of opioid painkillers in the U.S. As the LA Times reported:

“The new research, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, finds that deaths associated with the use of opiate drugs fell in 13 states after they legalized medical marijuana. Compared with states with no formal access to marijuana, those that allowed certain patients legal access to cannabis saw a steady drop in opiate-related overdoses that reached 33%, on average, six years after the states’ medical marijuana laws took effect.”

Muscle tension

Cannabis has scientifically proven anti-inflammatory properties. Whether you smoke it, vape it, or apply it to the skin in the form of an oil or salve, it relaxes the muscles. Patient reports to this effect are countless, and the science is encouraging too.

A clinical study published in the journal Pharmacology by the National Institute of Health found that cannabis’ anti inflammatory properties can even effectively treat Crohn’s disease, which is a serious inflammatory bowel disease.

Arthritis

Arthritis Today published an article last year on new research which suggests that cannabis can ease arthritis-related pain, inflammation and more.  While the doctors quoted in the article cautioned that more research is necessary, many were enthusiastic about the possibility.

According to the NORML website, “ Use of cannabis to treat symptoms of RA is commonly self-reported by patients with the disease. In a 2005 anonymous questionnaire survey of medicinal cannabis patients in Australia, 25 percent reported using cannabinoids to treat RA.A survey of British medical cannabis patients found that more than 20 percent of respondents reported using cannabis for symptoms of arthritis. Nevertheless, few clinical trials investigating the use of cannabis for RA appear in the scientific literature.”

Appetite

It’s no secret that cannabis boosts the appetite. Everyone’s heard of the “munchies,” though it wasn’t until recently that scientists began to understand just why they occur.

According to a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience this February, the compounds in cannabis responsible for both its psychoactive and healing properties, also appear to increase sensitivity to scents and flavors. I’m no doctor, but I’d guess that in seniors, who often suffer a loss of appetite due to health conditions, a little craving for salty or fatty foods probably isn’t such a bad thing.

Memory and brain function

While the common perception, born out of the stigmatization of cannabis, is that it impedes memory, Israeli researcher and professor of medicinal chemistry, Raphael Mechoulam has found otherwise. He is best known for isolating THC, the main active compound in cannabis. For decades he has investigated the ways human biochemistry interacts with cannabis and he has found it to help with various symptoms — including brain function.