There Are Health Concerns for Older Adults Using Cannabis
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"As a certified elder law attorney, I never imagined discussing marijuana use with some of our older adult clients. However, as we move towards national legalization, it's becoming a more common topic of discussion among older generations," said professional fiduciary and certified elder law attorney RJ Connelly III.
According to Attorney Connelly, studies have shown that the legalization of cannabis and its advertising has significantly increased cannabis use among older adults. Additionally, the boomer population's familiarity with drug use during their youth has eliminated the stigma associated with cannabis use. "What I find especially concerning is that users of the product are only discussing the positives that they have been told about, without being educated on the negatives or considering the long-term effects of cannabis use, especially among those who smoke it."
Attorney Connelly mentioned two issues regarding cannabis use in seniors: the impact on fall risks and the increased strength of today's strains compared to those from the sixties and seventies. "Many baby boomers bring forth their memories of the pot of yesteryear without adequate knowledge of the powerful strains that are available today. Although the ability to purchase cannabis legally eliminates the dangerous additives that street dealers added to their wares of the past, the strength brings with it other concerns unique to older users of cannabis."
This concern includes interactions with prescription medications. Seniors often take multiple medications, with almost 4 in 10 taking five or more, and marijuana can interact with some of these medications, as per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "I had two seniors I know purchase the product at a dispensary in nearby Massachusetts, and the salesperson never asked what medications they were taking or offered any insight into possible prescription drug interactions," stated Attorney Connelly. "Age, and the issues that come with it, is important when it comes to consumers of today's cannabis."
Adults Ignore Concerns
As cannabis use becomes more mainstream, older Americans view it more positively. A new report found that 44% of adults believe smoking weed daily is safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, despite contrary science. This could have profound public health implications.
In a report by Drugs.com, Dr. Beth Cohen, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, stated that recent research suggests there is a significant overlap in toxins and carcinogens found in cannabis and tobacco smoke. She expressed concern that recent findings are more alarming than previously thought.
Researchers analyzed data from 2017 to 2021 to study public perceptions of smoking tobacco and cannabis among over 5,000 adults. Results showed that the number of people who believed daily cannabis smoking was safer than smoking tobacco every day increased from 37% in 2017 to 44% in 2021. Similarly, the percentage of people who thought secondhand cannabis smoke was safer than tobacco smoke rose from 35% in 2017 to 40% in 2021.
Smoke from any source is harmful to your lungs, according to the study. The idea that cigarettes are harmful mainly because of the chemicals in them is a misconception. The harm comes from the smoke you inhale during combustion as the smoke's particulate matter penetrates the lungs.
Dr. Albert Rizzo, the chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, believes that perception of marijuana usage varies by age. He suggests that younger individuals may feel that it is a part of their generation, while the legalization of marijuana may also play a role. Rizzo emphasizes that legalization does not equate to safety, meaning that people must exercise caution.
"We lack long-term studies to demonstrate the effects of COPD or cancer. However, our concerns are that it is like tobacco in that it took years for science to prove its link to cancer and the development of COPD," said Rizzo.
It's these misconceptions that everyone, but especially older adults, need to be educated on. Many baby boomers, even those who used marijuana and other illicit drugs during their youth, are not educated on the dangers posed by cannabis on an aging body.
Wendi was born in the early fifties and grew up in the era commonly referred to today as the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. "I was raised in Philadelphia before moving to Connecticut in the early 1980s with my parents. I was a teen in the late sixties, and there were many drugs in the city. The biggest was heroin, which I stayed away from, but we used pot and rationalized that it was better than heroin, so we used it -- a lot. While the drug houses in West Philly were peddling heroin to the hardcore addicts, we were smoking weed while attending rock shows around the city and the Jersey Shore."
"When I graduated college, heroin was hard to come by in Philadelphia, and crack cocaine showed up. I also started to get away from the drug culture, partly due to age but primarily because of what was happening on the street. When we got to Connecticut, I found a job, married, and had children. The drug use culture was far behind me at that point."
When Wendi was in her forties, she was in a serious car accident that left her with severe back pain. After multiple spine surgeries, the pain persisted. She tried opioid medications, but it made her sick. "I thought I would just live the rest of my life in pain, but when they legalized cannabis, I remembered how it made me feel in my teens and read about how it helped with chronic pain, so I spoke with my husband and said why not try it?"
"Initially, it was a mess. I was trying to find a doctor who would ok a medical marijuana card for me, and once I had it, walking into the dispensary and seeing the products they had was overwhelming to me," said Wendi. 'A 'bud-tender' I spoke with did not seem too knowledgeable about what I needed for pain; I think today that has changed but it didn't help me then."
Wendi said she was bombarded with information on "drops, edibles, creams, all of which went over my head." Finally, she settled on a product with equal parts of THC and cannabidiol (CBD, a chemical said to reduce inflammation). What followed next was an experience she wanted to forget.
"I got home and took what I was told to take. It didn't seem to work, so I took more. I never got so high in my life. I started hallucinating, and my husband was scared to death," Wendi stated. "I laid down, and everything was spinning, and it seemed to get worse and worse. My husband called the doctor and immediately became concerned because I was taking Plavix and an anti-depressant, and he worried about a drug interaction. I ended up sleeping it off, but I wish I knew more about cannabis before I used it because I did a number on myself."
Cannabis Use and Older Adults
"As people age, they become more susceptible to harm from medications and substances, such as sedatives, opioids, alcohol, and cannabis," stated Attorney Connelly. "This is due to changes in physiology that affect how the body reacts to these substances."
According to Attorney Connelly, the older we get, the more our body composition changes, which affects how long medication stays in our system. For example, cannabis is fat-soluble, and as we acquire more body fat relative to water in old age, it lingers longer in our system.
But there are other issues as well. With age, we are more likely to have medical conditions that can complicate the use of substances and medications. For instance, taking multiple medications for various conditions can result in adverse outcomes due to their interaction. We still need to learn more about how cannabis interacts with medications because it is a complex substance and has not been studied enough.
"Cannabis contains over one hundred cannabinoids, including THC and CBD. THC has psychoactive effects on the brain, while CBD does not," said Attorney Connelly. "Older adults are more vulnerable to the impacts of cannabis, and other drugs and substances, increasing the risk of thinking and coordination problems."
But it's not just older adults who can suffer ill effects from cannabis. It is crucial for everyone to know that cannabis can have adverse effects on the lungs, heart, and brain, as well as interact with medications and lead to dependence. Smoking or vaping cannabis can cause lung injury due to the toxic substances, such as heavy metals, contained in the smoke.
Consuming excessive amounts of THC can also increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other vascular diseases. Products containing THC can also directly affect the brain, increasing the risk of anxiety and other types of psychosis.
Cannabis use also carries risks such as THC poisoning, particularly when consumed as an edible. Effects may take up to two hours, leading some to take more and overdose, resulting in anxiety, psychosis, and loss of consciousness. The severity of risks depends on the type and amount of cannabis product used.
The bottom line is that cannabis is undoubtedly not the benign substance some believe it to be. It is crucial for individuals, particularly older adults, to have a thorough understanding of the effects and possible drug interactions associated with the use of cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes.
And one other word of caution, using cannabis can lead to dependence. Unfortunately, most substance use disorders (SUD) treatment programs are not set up to provide care for older adults and the unique issues they bring to the table. Substance abuse is a rapidly growing health problem among this age group. However, despite the increasing number of older adults affected by these disorders, the situation remains underdiagnosed, underestimated, under identified, and untreated.
Substance abuse among older adults is often accompanied by stigma and a reluctance to seek help. This is perpetuated by their own shame and the shame of their relatives. It is an unfair assumption that treating substance use disorders in older adults is not worth healthcare resources. It is imperative that we recognize the importance of providing the necessary help and support for this vulnerable population. This means training medical professionals from doctors to CNAs to recognize the signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder.
Admitting to drug or alcohol addiction is not shameful. The perception of addiction has improved, and people are more forgiving when someone is seeking help. In fact, those closest to you will feel a sense of relief and gratitude when you decide to act towards resolving the problem. It takes great strength and courage to commit to sobriety, which is not a painless process. However, those who are willing to do the necessary work will be able to live and enjoy a sober lifestyle. To find a treatment program, please click go to FindTreatment.gov.
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