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More Older Americans Are Using Cannabis, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Feb 27, 2020   
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More older adults than ever before are using cannabis, but their healthcare providers are still too hesitant to talk about it, say researchers.

After analyzing a new wave of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, researchers found that the self-reported cannabis use rates among adults aged 65 and over have grown sharply in recent years.

In light of this, the researchers from the University of New York’s School of Medicine are asking healthcare professionals to re-examine their thinking over the demographics they might not assume to be drug users, and to make sure that their older patients are being asked about their potential cannabis use.

Over 65s cannabis use grows 75 percent in three years

Since 2006, the cannabis use rates being reported by older adults have been on the rise. Then, 0.4 percent of adults over the age of 65 reported using cannabis. By 2015-2016, this figure had ballooned to 2.9 percent.

In 2015, only four states and Washington, DC, had legalized recreational cannabis. Since then, a far greater number of states have moved to legalize recreational cannabis use; Illinois became the 11th and most recent state to do so on New Year’s Day, 2020.

As access to legal cannabis has grown, it’s important for scientists to revisit these cannabis use trends and track how they develop with time.

In this new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers analyzed data from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health and compared this against previous findings from the 2015 edition of the study.

They found that in 2018, 4.2 percent of respondents over the age of 65 reported using some form cannabis in the past year – an increase of 75 percent over the previous 2015 figures.

Lead study author and geriatrician Benjamin Han, says that these findings reflect the trends he has seen within his own patient network.

“Ten years ago, no one asked me about cannabis use ever. Now, it’s a very common question when I’m in the clinic,” said Han, who is also an assistant professor in the division of geriatric medicine and palliative care at the New York University School of Medicine, to the Verge. “I probably get asked about once a week. There’s a lot of interest.”

Why is cannabis use increasing?

While the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is fairly extensive – it includes the responses from over 14,000 people – it didn’t specifically include questions regarding what prompted the older adults’ cannabis use.

From the data that were included in the survey, there was a noticeable jump in cannabis use among people who have diabetes and cancer patients. This is suspected to be because of cannabis’ reported effectiveness in treating nerve pain, which chronic diabetes can cause, and chemotherapy-related nausea and cancer pain.

But the survey didn’t ask any further questions about arthritis, Parkinson’s, chronic pain, or other similar conditions that may be qualifying for medical cannabis and which also commonly affect older adults. As a result, it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions from these data over what exactly is driving up cannabis use rates in older populations.

“But generally, a lot of it is probably the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis, and destigmatization,” said Han. “And, that we have more and more information about the use of cannabis for chronic illnesses.”

Revisiting assumptions in healthcare

With cannabis use rates increasing among the over 65s, and with this increase holding strong over the course of more than a decade, the researchers say it’s vital that medical professionals take this information on board and start initiating discussions with their older patients about their substance use.

People over the age of 65 are less likely to be included in the clinical trials that judge the safety and efficacy of cannabis, and so it’s important that these older adults talk to a doctor before they use cannabis.

“They’re more vulnerable to anything with psychoactive properties, like alcohol,” Han said. “These substances can also interact negatively with other prescribed drugs, and older patients with more chronic conditions more likely take more medications.”

“We do a very poor job screening and talking to older patients about drug and alcohol use. That may have negative health effects,” Han added. 

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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