Seniors are turning to cannabis to treat common symptoms of aging, with nearly 80% of those who reported using cannabis saying they did so for medicinal reasons, according to a study from researchers at the University of California San Diego. Results of the study, “Cannabis: An emerging treatment for common symptoms in older adults,” were published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.

To conduct the research, investigators surveyed 568 seniors at a geriatric clinic. All respondents were at least 65 years old, and 73% of those surveyed were older than 75. The researchers discovered that 15% of seniors had used cannabis in the last three years, among whom half reported using cannabis regularly. Cannabis was used primarily for medical reasons by 78% of those who reported its use.

“Pain, insomnia, and anxiety were the most common reasons for cannabis use and, for the most part, patients reported that cannabis was helping to address these issues, especially with insomnia and pain,” Christopher Kaufmann, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology in the Department of Medicine at UCSD and one of the study’s authors, said in a press release.

The researchers also found that 61% of respondents who used cannabis had begun doing so at the age of 60 or older, according to Kevin Yang, a third-year medical student at UCSD and another author of the study.

“Surprisingly, we found that nearly three-fifths of cannabis users reported using cannabis for the first time as older adults,” Yang said. “These individuals were a unique group compared to those who used cannabis in the past.”

“New users were more likely to use cannabis for medical reasons than for recreation. The route of cannabis use also differed with new users more likely to use it topically as a lotion rather than by smoking or ingesting as edibles,” Yang added. “Also, they were more likely to inform their doctor about their cannabis use, which reflects that cannabis use is no longer as stigmatized as it was previously.”

Body Of Research Growing

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) noted in a press release that several similar studies have shown a rising popularity in the use of cannabis by seniors. The research has shown cannabis to be relatively safe and effective at mitigating pain and improving sleep.

“It is not surprising that a rising percentage of seniors consider cannabis to be a viable therapeutic option in their later years. Many seniors struggle with pain, anxiety, restless sleep, and other conditions for which cannabis products may help mitigate,” said NORML deputy director Paul Armentano. “Moreover, many seniors are well aware of the litany of serious adverse side-effects associated with available prescription drugs, like opioids or sleep aids, and they perceive medical cannabis to be a practical and potentially safer alternative.”

Although the research has been encouraging, the authors of the UCSD study said even more study is needed to determine the safety and efficacy of different cannabis formulations for treating symptoms commonly experienced by older adults.

“There seems to be potential with cannabis, but we need more evidence-based research. We want to find out how cannabis compares to current medications available,” Kaufmann said. “Could cannabis be a safer alternative to treatments, such as opioids and benzodiazepines? Could cannabis help reduce the simultaneous use of multiple medications in older persons? We want to find out which conditions cannabis is most effective in treating. Only then can we better counsel older adults on cannabis use.”

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