Why More American Seniors Are Turning to Medical Cannabis

seniors and medical marijuana

The way society views cannabis today is much different than it has ever been in the United States. The historical narrative of cannabis has swung like a pendulum from a corrupting vice to a natural alternative health option for patients.

Cannabis has often been associated with the younger demographic, related primarily to recreational marijuana use. But today, cannabis is gaining traction among older adults and seniors over the age of sixty. The cohort of Americans who have higher diagnosis rates for age-related conditions, including chronic pain, arthritis, inflammation, neuropathy, insomnia, appetite loss, and more.

Now more than ever before, a growing number of seniors are exploring the therapeutic potential of doctor-supervised cannabis. For some, medical marijuana can provide a new way to make symptoms more manageable and improve their quality of life.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the common reasons that American seniors are exploring medical cannabis and why adults over sixty years of age may become the largest group of patients to adopt medical marijuana as part of their wellness strategy.

How Many Seniors Are Using Medical Cannabis?

Statistics provide an estimate at best and cannot conclusively measure how many seniors in the United States are using medical cannabis. One of the reasons is that, while patient demographics are available from state medical cannabis regulators, many more seniors may be using cannabis medicinally without a medical card. They may be purchasing from illicit sources or opting to buy from recreational marijuana dispensaries instead of becoming registered medical cannabis cardholders.

According to data provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reported by The New York Times, there were only 0.4% of people aged 65 and older regularly using cannabis in the United States in 2007. However, the number of seniors rose to 3% in 2016, and in 2022, the survey revealed more than 8% of seniors were using cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes.

In 2022, there were an estimated 54.1 million adults (or 16% of the total population) who were sixty-five (65) years of age or older. Potentially, that would mean 4,328,000 American seniors who are regular cannabis users.

Finding Alternatives to Prescription Drugs

Not only is the number of seniors using cannabis rising, but they are more apt to share the results they have achieved, using medical cannabis as an alternative treatment option. The Baby Boomers are not shy about sharing what works for them with friends and family members. Particularly since there is little to no stigma today about cannabis use and creating a treatment plan with a physician.

Some seniors have had negative effects associated with long-term prescription medications used for pain, for example. With increased research and information about the hazards of long-term use of opioids and other prescription drugs, many older adults feel that cannabis use is safer.

The Baby Boomers were most impacted by overprescribed prescription medications, and some became reliant on opioids, developing problems with addiction. Consequently, the response to try to reduce fatalities and protect public health by reducing opioid prescribing left many seniors with low access to the pain medications they relied on.

Getting prescription opioids today is much harder than it used to be, thanks to new laws that restrict and monitor health providers more closely. Using cannabis before legalization meant severe legal risks, but now that almost every state in America has legalized medical cannabis, seniors feel it is safe to explore and try for symptom management.

What Common Symptoms Are Seniors Addressing With Medical Cannabis?

Older adults who have not tried medical cannabis may wonder about how effective it is for different types of symptoms. Each individual is different, and how one strain may work for you may not be how it works for someone else.

Here are some of the common reasons why American seniors explore medical cannabis products:

seniors depression anxiety

1. Help with Anxiety and Depression

Seniors may have higher rates of depression and anxiety than other age groups for a variety of reasons. Our current Baby Boomers were raised in a culture that did not share mental health disorders or struggles. They were taught to “handle it” by themselves, and that may be one of the reasons why 58% of seniors in one study indicated that depression is completely normal (and expected) as they grow older.

The common causes of depression among seniors include:

  • Chronic health issues, including pain, illnesses, and other health challenges.
  • Age-related physical limitations and difficulties with mobility and travel.
  • Loss of independence and increased reliance on supportive care. The transition from independent living and loss of freedoms due to health or decline of cognitive functioning is emotionally difficult.
  • Struggles with isolation in retirement. Outliving family members and friends can leave seniors feeling bereaved and lonely, particularly if they are in assistive care, such as transitional retirement facilities or nursing homes.
  • Financial stress due to increased cost of living and healthcare costs.
  • Cognitive decline from age-related conditions such as dementia.
  • Side-effects from medications. Some prescription medications can contribute to mood variances and symptoms of depression.

Doctor-supervised cannabis use among seniors may be growing because certain strains can provide a temporary break from anxiety or depressive symptoms. This can help seniors balance their mood and offset some of the challenges of clinical anxiety or depression.

seniors cannabis depression

2. Chronic Pain Management

Chronic pain is prevalent for many seniors as they age. This can be caused by conditions such as arthritis, and also injuries sustained from falling, and other causes. Older adults who have previously used opioid medications may also have amplified pain as a result of long-term use. Many studies suggest that opioids can increase pain sensitivity when used for a long time.

Seniors can also experience chronic pain from neuropathy, musculoskeletal changes, spinal compression, and more. Studies suggest that cannabis strains that have high cannabidiol (CBD) ratios may help patients living with chronic pain with few to no side effects when compared to prescription opioids or NSAID medications.

3. Diabetic Neuropathy

According to the American Diabetes Association, approximately 30% of American seniors may have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Many seniors may not even know they have the condition, and the risk of developing serious side effects without diabetic care is high.

Diabetic neuropathy is the leading cause of pain and discomfort among older adults with the chronic disease. Sustained high glucose levels result in nerve damage, which causes neuropathic pain throughout the body. Mostly commonly to the extremities, such as hands, fingers, toes, and feet.

While chronic pain is associated with diabetic neuropathy, nerve damage can also cause other symptoms, including problems with digestion, nutrient absorption, vision damage or loss, and compromised immune system functioning.

Diabetic neuropathy can be painful and present with a number of uncomfortable symptoms, with disease progression. When conventional treatment options no longer work, many seniors explore relief with doctor-supervised medical cannabis use.

4. Condition Related Insomnia

Insomnia is more than having problems getting to sleep every now and then. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep or stay at rest through the night, you should talk to a doctor about insomnia and some of the common causes of sleep disorders among older adults.

If you are using medical marijuana to help with pain, you may want suggestions on other strains that can help improve your sleep quality. Typically, Indica-dominant products provide a sedative effect that can help older adults resolve problems with insomnia.

Studies suggest that edible products may be very effective as an aid for sleep problems. Medicinal use of medical marijuana may not require high THC potency to help. Products with high ratios of cannabidiol (CBD) may reduce restless thoughts that make it hard to fall asleep. For patients with chronic pain, cannabis may also help provide relief to reduce sleep disruptions caused by discomfort.

medical marijuana senior health

5. Chronic Pain Management

Older adults struggling with symptoms of chronic pain may find relief by adding medical cannabis to their doctor-supervised treatment plan. Cannabis interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system and can provide anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-numbing) effects.

Advocates for medical marijuana use have theorized that in the future, there may be fewer prescription pain medications if cannabis use among seniors proves to be effective. Many of the side effects of prescription pain medications can be worse than the original symptoms.

Cannabis is gaining attention as a potential ally in chronic pain management for seniors. Compounds like CBD and THC interact with the endocannabinoid system, offering analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. Some seniors report reduced reliance on traditional pain medications and improved pain control with cannabis use. However, individual responses vary, and caution is essential due to potential side effects and interactions with medications. Seniors considering cannabis for chronic pain should consult healthcare professionals for personalized advice, ensuring a balanced and informed approach. Ongoing research aims to refine the understanding of cannabis’s role in senior chronic pain management, emphasizing the importance of responsible use.

senior healthcare cannabis

6. Restoring a Healthy Appetite

Losing your appetite may not seem like a big deal, but involuntary weight loss can be bad for your health and negatively impact immune system functioning. Many things, from low mood to stress, depression, chronic pain, and more, can do a number on a normally healthy appetite.

Other diagnoses like Cachexia and eating disorders can make appetite challenging. Not every strain of cannabis stimulates hunger, but the ones that have a “munchies” warning will. And for someone who has difficulty finding the motivation to eat, that little bit can help tremendously.

Safety Concerns and the Importance of Responsible Use

While cannabis is well-tolerated by most patients, it can conflict with certain types of prescription medications. That is why it is so important for patients to consult with a physician or healthcare practitioner before commencing medical marijuana use.

Older patients enjoy having a private consultation with a physician who is knowledgeable about medical marijuana. If you are taking multiple medications, your certification appointment with a MedWell Health and Wellness doctor provides a thorough check and discussion about cannabis to help mitigate symptoms and make them more manageable.

At MedWell Health and Wellness, our physicians advocate for your right to choose medical cannabis as a legal option to help manage difficult symptoms and live your best life. Schedule your appointment online for a Massachusetts medical card today, and ask about our convenient payment plan that makes getting your medical card work with your budget.