Feb. 7, 2013 11:09

How Cannabis Can Help Seniors

The United States has always had something of a youth culture. Advertisers frequently target consumers under 30 and—with the possible exception of pharmaceutical companies—largely ignore the largest demographic group in the country: the Baby Boomers, the 76 million people born between in the United States between 1946 and 1964. Older Americans are one of the fastest growing demographic groups. By 2012 100 million Americans will be over the age of 50.

Aging brings with it not only wisdom and experience, but for many people illness and pain. The average 75-year-old suffers from three chronic medical conditions and takes five or more different medications. Some medication side effects can be serious, such as bleeding caused by aspirin, abnormal heart rhythms that can result from some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or even death from prescription narcotic medications. Adverse reactions to medications may cause as many as 100,000 deaths in the United States every year. It is important to note that no deaths from the use of marijuana have ever been reported in the more than 4,000 years of recorded history of its use.

Recent estimates are that 60 percent of all adult Americans have some form of chronic or recurring pain, with 88 percent of seniors suffering some form of chronic pain. Joint pain due to osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis is common, as is neck and back pain caused by degenerative disc (DDD) and joint disease (DJD), which most people develop by age 60. Weakened discs can also bulge or herniate and press on adjacent nerves, causing severe pain due to nerve compression. Diabetes also affects older people more frequently, and can cause neuropathic pain, a kind of nerve pain that can be very difficult to treat.

All of these symptoms respond extremely well to medical marijuana, and most people who use it for pain are able to significantly decrease and in many cases to stop their non-steroidal anti-inflammatory and narcotic pain medicines. We have seen many instances of older people again being able to become active again, working in their gardens, taking walks—in short, to become much more functional using medical marijuana instead of multiple prescription medications.

Various forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease affect mostly older people as well. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known, but oxidative damage due to free radicals may play an important role in its development. And while there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, excellent research conducted in the late 1990s showed that certain substances found in marijuana are such powerful antioxidants that they might prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The research was so compelling that a patent was issued to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the use of those cannabinoids to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and to protect the central nervous system form damage from strokes and trauma.

Every treatment has some side effect. In the case of cannabis, the side effects are few and mild. These include euphoria soon after its use, interference with short-term memory (though this is short-lived, and some research suggests that memory may be enhanced overall), interference with REM sleep and nausea at high doses and bronchitis if smoked.

Someone once said that getting old isn’t for sissies. That’s true. Aging brings with it certain physical problems that can make life difficult. Medical cannabis can make many of those problems much more bearable for many people, and enhance rather than diminish their quality of life with little risk, and potentially tremendous benefit.

Alan Shackelford, M.D., graduated from the University of Heidelberg School of Medicine and trained at major teaching hospitals of Harvard Medical School in internal medicine, nutritional medicine and hyperalimentation and behavioral medicine.

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