In our golden years, we hope for a stress-free retirement, time to spend with family and maybe even a few adventures here and there. But what many of us also have to contend with is the potential for health problems. As we age, certain physical ailments seem to crop up—failing eyesight, stiff joints, and increased aches and pains.
Normally, senior citizens are prescribed a host of pharmaceuticals to ease pain from varying conditions. But one treatment that mature Americans are increasingly seeking out is medicinal cannabis. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, cannabis consumption in people aged 55–64 rose from 1.1% to 6.1% from 2002–2014, making them one of the fastest-growing groups of cannabis consumers.
But can marijuana really help with health conditions faced by seniors? The compounds in the cannabis plant, cannabinoids, bind to our endocannabinoid receptor system (ECS). The ECS is extensive, with receptors in nearly every part of the body including the pelvic area, gut and brain. That’s why cannabis can treat such a range of conditions in a variety of areas—the effective compounds in the plant can reach so many places because of its interaction with the ECS.
So, let’s see how medical marijuana can help combat the health conditions that become more prevalent as we age.
Studies as far back as the 1970s show that cannabis eases interocular pressure. This pressure buildup is a result of fluid not draining properly from the eye and is one of the most painful glaucoma symptoms.
The American Glaucoma Society is cautious yet hopeful about using medicinal cannabis to treat glaucoma and related eye problems. There’s some new research suggesting cannabinoid receptors are present in eye tissue—so the possibility exists for marijuana to target the actual eyeball, not just the pressure around it. There are also trials testing cannabis’s neuroprotective properties, with the thinking that marijuana could have a positive effect on optic nerves.
Most patients suffering from vision issues smoke or vape marijuana, but researchers and anecdotal evidence report that interocular pressure is only relieved for short amounts of time—when the marijuana’s effects wear off, so do the benefits for people suffering from glaucoma. Apparently, a cannabis eye drop is in the works, but not available yet. So along with other therapies, cannabis edibles or tinctures high in cannabidiol (CBD) are advised because their effects last longer than vaping or smoking does.
Arthritis is an umbrella term for a variety of joint disorders that can result in mild stiffness to deformity. Traditional arthritis therapies like cortisone injections and opioids can carry serious side effects like nerve damage and breathing difficulties, respectively.
Since CBD has anti-inflammatory properties, marijuana strains and products that are rich in this cannabinoid seem to work well for people with arthritis. Some arthritis sufferers smoke or vape cannabis while some choose tinctures or sublinguals as a smoke-free consumption method. But many opt for marijuana topicals as a way to treat a specific area. Plus, since cannabis used on the skin typically doesn’t reach the bloodstream (with the exception of transdermal patches), psychoactive effects are highly unlikely.
Shingles results from a dormant virus, the same that causes chicken pox, that reactivates later in life. It’s usually characterized by a painful rash or blisters that typically show up on the torso, but can also affect the arms, face and chest. Besides the unsightly rash, the pain from the virus is what most sufferers remember about the condition—and nerve pain may linger for months or even years after the rash disappears.
For pain, many people reach for a fast-acting vape pen. Vaping cannabis, like smoking, results in near immediate effects. Still, many folks with shingles like to apply a topical marijuana product right on the affected areas. A high-CBD salve, balm or oil can provide localized relief, quelling pain and decreasing inflammation.
Memory problems are part of many people’s aging journey. On one side of the spectrum is forgetting where you put your keys, but on the other side are serious conditions like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In Alzheimer’s disease, proteins are thought to block the space between the brain cells that are responsible for memory. A 2016 study showed that the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has the power to clear those proteins from the brain. THC has also been shown to help with appetite, sleep and anxiety—symptoms that are also experienced by dementia patients.
As far as cannabis products for dementia go, it really depends on personal preference. For more mental clarity, an uplifting sativa like Jack Herer would be a good option for daytime consumption. At nighttime, an ideal strain might be Bubba Kush. Bubba Kush is an indica strain that’s said to aid in relaxation and sleep, and it’s also reported to stimulate appetite—a problem some Alzheimer’s patients suffer from.
If vaping or smoking isn’t a desired consumption method, try sublinguals. Most people feel the effects of sublinguals in as little as 10–15 minutes. Edibles might also be a good option as they’re smoke-free, and the effects last longer than other cannabis consumption methods.
Tinnitus patients suffer from persistent ringing, hissing or buzzing in their ears. Throughout history, doctors thought that tinnitus was a result of something wrong with the ear, but now researchers are confident that it’s actually caused by the brain—or a breakdown in how the brain interprets signals sent by the ear.
Research on the brain’s plasticity—its ability to change and learn to react to new stimuli—shows that it’s influenced by the ECS. An animal study from 2009 found that the brain’s circuits that break down with a tinnitus diagnosis are positively influenced by the ECS, giving people hope that cannabis can be a viable therapy for hearing issues.
Besides easing tinnitus symptoms, cannabis has the potential to help those with hearing issues relax as well as ease related symptoms like insomnia, depression and irritability. Because of CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties, tinctures or cannabis flower that are high in CBD are a good place to start.
As we get on in years, we don’t have to accept poor health as a given. Ask your doctor if cannabis can be part of a holistic way to treat any health condition you’re confronting later in life—so you can have those adventures you dreamed of no matter what your age.
Photo credit: Lotte Meijer