Marijuana Has Special Risks for Older People

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Cannabis that seniors take for pain, sleep or anxiety can lead to other health problems. Here’s what to watch for.










Buying from a licensed marijuana dispensary helps ensure the products have been through quality manufacturing practices

What seniors should know about marijuana

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive component of marijuana and what causes the high. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is another component of the cannabis plant and doesn’t produce the high that THC does. Many products contain both THC and CBD.

When you eat something containing cannabis, THC and particularly CBD interact with the enzyme system in the liver that is responsible for metabolizing drugs. This can change the level of drug in your system, making it more or less potent, says Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.


Marijuana also affects your cognitive abilities, at least in the short-term. Physiological and brain changes in aging adults may make them more vulnerable to the negative effects of THC, says Ziva Cooper, director of the UCLA Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoids. However, some research has suggested that when older mice are administered THC, their cognitive outcomes slightly improve, says Dr. Cooper.

The effects of marijuana can linger in an older body for longer. As we get older, our metabolism slows. Popular products such as edibles need to be digested. It can take eight hours or longer for the effects of THC to wear off and even more for seniors, doctors and researchers say. 

“Slower metabolism can result in a slightly greater impact of the products,” says Dr. Gruber. 

Higher impact can lead to a greater risk of adverse effects associated with THC, such as dizziness, which can affect balance, an increased heart rate or even delirium.


How should seniors be protected from the risks of using marijuana? Join the conversation below.

Knowing the dose of THC in products is important. Pot products aren’t well regulated, so it can be hard to verify that what’s on the label is accurate. Buying from a licensed dispensary helps ensure the products have been through quality manufacturing practices and tested for purity and potency.  

How adult children can help

If your parent is using marijuana or CBD products, encourage them to talk with their doctor to make sure they understand how it may affect other medications they are taking and possible risks. Many adult children buy products for their parents without understanding that the dose and type have different effects, says Benjamin Han, a geriatrician at UCSD. 

“If older adults are considering trying cannabis for medical reasons, it is important for them to treat it like any other medication that may have side effects or interact with other medications,” says Dr. Han. 

Ask your parents why they are taking marijuana to see if there are health issues that may be better addressed with other treatments, recommends Dr. Moore.

And advise parents to “start low and go slow,” or take a low dose at first and increase as needed, says Tory R. Spindle, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and cannabis researcher. Be aware of potential cognitive impairment and motor skills, and warn parents not to drive while impaired.




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