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Many Older Patients Are Still Hesitant to Discuss Their Medical Cannabis Use With Doctors, Study Finds

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Apr 30, 2021   
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Most older medical cannabis patients don’t discuss their medication with their doctor, according to a new study.

Published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, the study of patient data found that less than 40 percent of medical cannabis patients over the age 50 have had such discussions with their doctor.

In light of their findings, the researchers behind the study are urging US doctors to screen older patients for cannabis, check for mental health problems, and recommend treatment when necessary.

Late bloomers

To assess how the spread of legalized medical cannabis across the US has impacted older patients, the researchers from University of Texas at Austin accessed the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and trawled through the data of 17,685 people aged 50 and over.

And they found that medical use is on the up. According to the NSDUH surveys of 2008-to-2012, 3.9 percent of patients aged 50 and over were using cannabis in some form. But in the 2019 survey, this proportion had shot up to 8.9 percent.

Nearly a fifth (18.5 percent) of these older participants used cannabis to manage a medical condition, such as chronic pain or anxiety. And of these patients, 70.9 percent were classed as “exclusive” medical users, while 29.1 percent used cannabis both medically and nonmedically.

Compared to the exclusive recreational cannabis consumers, older medical cannabis patients reported lower rates of mental illnesses (27 percent to 37 percent) and lower rates of alcohol use disorder (13.9 percent to 23.2 percent), but displayed similar levels of health otherwise.

Those who exclusively used medical cannabis were also four times more likely to discuss their drug use with a doctor than recreational consumers. However, less than 40 percent of these medical patients actually reported such discussions with their doctor – a figure that the researchers behind the study found somewhat concerning.

“The findings suggest that some medical users may be self-treating without healthcare professional consultation,” Namkee G. Choi, a professor of gerontology at University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement.

“All older people who take cannabis should consult healthcare professionals about their use,” she continued. “As part of routine care, healthcare professionals should screen for cannabis and other substance use, and for mental health problems.”

“They should also recommend services or treatment when indicated. Given the increase in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) potency, healthcare professionals should educate older cannabis users, especially high-frequency users, on potential safety issues and adverse effects.”

A separate study published in JAMA Internal Medicine last year also found that cannabis use has been rising among older US adults. The authors of that study found that, in 2018, 4.2 percent of surveyed 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.

Another more recent study found that medical cannabis use may lead to reduced blood pressure in older adults. Published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine, the study was the first of its kind to look at the effects of cannabis on blood pressure, heart rate, and metabolic parameters in adults aged over 60 with hypertension.


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