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Cannabis use rising among older Americans but still not common

More adults over age 65 are using cannabis, but is it safe for them?

Doctors say older adults considering cannabis for chronic pain should talk to their physician first because there is limited research about how cannabis interacts with other medications.
Doctors say older adults considering cannabis for chronic pain should talk to their physician first because there is limited research about how cannabis interacts with other medications.Read moreSusan Montoya Bryan / AP

Cannabis use is on the rise among older adults as more states move toward legalization for medical or recreational use, according to new analysis published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The number of adults over 65 who used cannabis in the last year increased 75% between 2015 and 2018, according to the study by researchers at New York University School of Medicine.

The portion of seniors using cannabis is still small. The analysis estimated that 4.2% of seniors used cannabis in 2018, compared with 2.4% in 2015. But that’s a dramatic increase from a decade ago — less than half a percent of seniors reported cannabis use in 2006.

The report was based on a survey of nearly 15,000 adults over age 65 asked about their use of cannabis, marijuana, hashish, pot, grass, and hash oil — either smoked or ingested.

“As people are living longer and with more chronic illness ... people are turning to all kinds of nontraditional alternatives to ameliorate those symptoms,” said Brooke Worster, an associate professor of medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University.

Worster, who is registered with the Pennsylvania Department of Health as a medical-marijuana-certifying physician, said she had certified more than 500 patients in the state — with an average age of 68.

Though not backed up by extensive clinical research, cannabis is believed to have medicinal benefits, specifically in reducing pain. Older adults may be turning to cannabis as a way to reduce their reliance on other medications, especially opioids, Worster said.

Researchers found that the increase in cannabis use among seniors was driven by individuals who had no more than one chronic health condition. But Worster said that even one chronic health problem can contribute to plenty of pain.

“If we can keep people alive for 65 years with diabetes, they’re going to have worse pain over time,” she said.

Researchers found the greatest increases in cannabis use among women, racial and ethnic minorities, individuals with higher incomes, and individuals with a mental health condition.

The study also found an increase in the number of older adults who used cannabis and alcohol, a combination that is more dangerous than using either substance alone.

The study’s authors said the findings point to the need for more research about how cannabis affects older adults.

“We don’t know necessarily how it interacts with other drugs, and your over-65-years-old subset are often on multiple medications,” Worster said.

Side effects of cannabis include dizziness, which may make older adults, especially, more vulnerable to falls.

Worster urged anyone interested in using cannabis for medical purposes to talk to their doctor about whether it is safe for them and which products might be the best fit.

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