An Aging Population Turns to Pot
The journal “Drug and Alcohol Dependence” has published a year-long study showing an increase in marijuana use among both middle-aged and older adults—and that these cheeky, weed-smoking boomers are also likely to “use other substances.”
Study Finds that Older Americans are Smoking, Many for the First Time
Using data pulled from a 2015-16 survey of nearly 140,000 respondents by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), Benjamin H. Han and Joseph J. Palamar concluded that past-year marijuana use prevalence was 9% among adults aged 50-64 and almost 3% among those above 65.
These numbers are up from 7% and 1.4% respectively in 2013 and a relatively low 4.5% and 0.4% respectively in 2006-2007. It’s clear that as most states are turning a new leaf on the legality of medical and even recreational marijuana, curiosity about the plant’s possibilities hasn’t escaped the older set.
Science Daily mentions that baby boomers have “more experience with recreational use of drugs than previous generations.” Researcher and NYU Associate Professor Dr. Joseph Palamar told the publication, “Most current [baby boomer] users are by no means new initiates.”
While lifetime use rates among those aged 50-64 sits at 54.5%, only 22.4% of respondents 65 and over had ever smoked pot. Dr. Han, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, told NPR he was “surprised to learn that many of the older Americans turning to marijuana are new converts to its use.” While 92.9% of all adults aged 50-64 first used pot when they were 21 or younger, that number was only 54.7% for those 65 and older.
Older People are Largely Smoking Pot Following a Doctor’s Advice
Certainly a true sign of the times, NPR reports that “almost one-quarter of Americans over 65 in the 2016 survey who had used marijuana in the previous year said they [had] gotten the go-ahead from their doctors.” It’s a demonstration of the increasing support of medical marijuana coming from mainstream doctors, especially considering the high rates of chronic pain and opiate addiction among the middle-aged and elderly.
“We prescribe substances that are far more dangerous than cannabinoids,” Duke University School of Medicine palliative care physician and researcher of medical marijuana use in the elderly Dr. Joshua Briscoe told NPR. “I get asked a lot, more and more, by my population, ‘Hey, should I try marijuana for this? Should I try marijuana for that?’ It’s hard for me to know what to tell patients.”
Health Risks Among Elderly Medical Marijuana Users Need Attention
Dr. Briscoe explains that like any medication, marijuana’s intoxicative properties can impact older populations more strongly than younger individuals. “A smaller amount is going to hit you a lot harder when you’re older,” he said, adding that the potency of the drug might also have changed over the years. (He’s right—THC levels in pot have definitively risen.)
The study also found, Science Daily reported, that “adults who used marijuana were more likely to also report alcohol abuse, nicotine dependence, cocaine use, and misuse of prescription medications (including opioids and sedatives) than non-users.”
Dr. Han said, “Marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating certain conditions that affect older adults, including neuropathic pain and nausea. However, certain older adults may be at heightened risk for adverse effects associated with marijuana use, particularly if they have certain underlying chronic diseases or are also engaged in unhealthy substance use.”
There’s no denying that when it comes to demographics being studied for their cannabis use, the elderly (and even the middle-aged) aren’t exactly science’s biggest focus. But with more people turning to pot at their doctors’ behests and the pressure mounting for the development of alternatives to opioid pain treatment courses, it’s unlikely that this lack of research will stay the case for long. Not when there’s that much pharmaceutical cash at stake.
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