BlogMedical cannabis for elderly patients: safety, benefits, and considerations

Medical cannabis for elderly patients: safety, benefits, and considerations

13 min read

Sam North

Medical cannabis for elderly patients

As we age, the need for medical care and support grows. From decades-long niggles to sudden, serious health concerns - the golden years can be challenging and uncertain. Conventional approaches to health are the go-to for most seniors, but many pharmaceutical options can have heavy, concerning, and risky side effects.

The risk of such side effects can increase with age, as our bodies become more sensitive and less resilient.

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How cannabis is changing geriatric care in the UK

Medical cannabis became a legal option here in the UK almost 6 years ago and has been slowly (but surely) gaining recognition as a natural, safe, and effective complementary treatment option for managing a range of health conditions. It's especially promising for elderly patients who might be more susceptible to adverse reactions from traditional medications.

That's not to say that medical cannabis is a miracle cure or should replace all other forms of treatment, or that it even comes with zero chance of side effects. But, with its therapeutic potential and relatively low-risk profile, it's certainly worth considering as a viable option to help reduce the symptom impact of many health concerns.

Think of this article as your introduction into the world of cannabis-based medications for elderly patients - exploring its efficacy, safety profile, and things to consider when exploring this treatment option for yourself or a loved one.

Unravelling the benefits of cannabis medicine for elderly patients

Treatment options derived from the cannabis sativa L. genera have a long and well-documented history of use in traditional and alternative medicine practices around the world. From ancient China, Egypt, Rome, and Greece to more recent times, cannabis-based medicines have been widely documented and applied for their therapeutic effects on different health issues, including chronic pain, inflammation, seizures, and certain mental health concerns.

But thanks to more than a century-long campaign of misinformation, prohibition, and stigmatisation, the true potential of cannabis-derived treatment options has been largely suppressed and ignored in Western healthcare. Older patients who have lived during the era of cannabis demonisation may find it hard to consider medical cannabis as a legitimate and safe treatment option for their age-related health concerns.

With that said, the body of evidence supporting the current shift in attitudes regarding medical cannabis is too compelling to ignore. For elderly patients, this represents a ray of hope where none may be and opens the door to explore treatment options with the potential for lower risk, fewer side effects and less reliance on conventional pharmaceuticals.

What conditions can cannabis-based treatment help with?

As research into medical cannabis continues to grow, so do the reported benefits for patients of different ages and backgrounds. One of the more common concerns for people aged 65 and above is the burden of chronic pain.

Chronic pain comes in many forms and can be caused by a wide range of underlying conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, or cancer. Traditional painkillers often come with risks of addiction, overdose, and other nasty side effects that are particularly concerning for elderly patients. To say we are currently battling an opioid crisis here in the UK is anything but an understatement.

Sleep issues are also quite common, and can have a huge effect on quality of life. We all have sleepless nights now and then, but when the problem persists, it can lead to chronic fatigue, pain flare-ups and can spark mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety.

Inflammation is our bodies' natural response to injury or infection, but if it persists habitually, it can cause a whole host of health issues. Inflammation is now thought to be an underlying factor in many so-called "age-related" conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, and even Alzheimer's.

Anxiety and depression are also quite common in the elderly population, with many experiencing isolation, loneliness, and other challenges that can impact mental well-being. Traditional treatments such as antidepressants often come with a lengthy list of side effects, including an increased risk of falls and fractures for elderly patients.

What the research says about cannabis treatment for elderly patients

While research on the use of medical cannabis in specifically elderly patients is still limited, there is an abundance of evidence showing its potential for treating a wide range of conditions that commonly affect the elderly population.

The science explained

One study that did focus on older patients is the 2019 study "Medical Cannabis for Older Patients—Treatment Protocol and Initial Results". Spanning more than 15 months, it looked into how cannabis-based medications may help relieve the burden of both chronic pain and constant restless nights.

Of the 184 patients, more than half (58.1%) were still taking medical cannabis after six months, with 84.8% reporting some degree of improvement in their general condition.

The study found that cannabis treatment was well tolerated by most patients, and that the majority of study participants were satisfied with the treatment and believed it was beneficial to their general health. However, it was also noted that adverse events were reported by 33.6% of the patients, with dizziness (12.1%) and sleepiness/fatigue (11.2%) being the most common.

Chronic pain is one of the more well-researched conditions that cannabis-based treatment can help with, with multiple studies showing its potential to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients. Arthritis is a common cause of chronic pain in the elderly population, and CBD is showing huge potential as a treatment option.

This study, titled "Cannabidiol as a treatment for arthritis and joint pain: an exploratory cross-sectional study", found that

"CBD administration was associated with improvements in pain (83%), physical function (66%), and sleep quality (66%), and the overall cohort reported a 44% reduction in pain after CBD use"

The difference between CBD and THC

Although CBD and THC are both cannabinoids extracted from cannabis, they have different effects on our bodies.

CBD is an interesting compound that comes with an extremely low-risk profile. It is totally non-psychoactive, so it won't get you "high", and is well tolerated by people of all ages. It has a very low potential for addiction or abuse, making it a much safer alternative to traditional painkillers. It is also showing promise in treating sleep disorders, reducing inflammation, and even managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

THC may also be beneficial, but precautions need to be taken, especially for elderly patients who may have a higher risk of adverse effects such as confusion or dizziness. This is due to the psychoactive properties of THC, which can cause cognitive impairment in some individuals. But, when dosed correctly, THC can be applied therapeutically without causing psychoactive effects, making it a promising option for elderly patients.

While more research is still needed on the specific benefits and risks of medical cannabis for elderly patients, the existing evidence shows great potential for improving their quality of life and managing common health issues.

For a more in-depth look into the medical applications of cannabis, check out our education section. We have posts covering how cannabinoids can help with pain, inflammation, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and a vast array of other health concerns.

Key considerations before starting treatment

All patients looking into medical cannabis treatment should consult with a qualified specialist before starting any new medication or treatment plan. This is especially true for older patients, as the risk for adverse effects may be higher.

Common side effects and how to manage them

While medical cannabis treatment has been shown time and again to be well tolerated by most patients, there are still some potential side effects to keep in mind. These can include:

  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • changes in appetite and weight
  • racing heartbeat
  • confusion
  • changes in blood pressure
  • drowsiness or fatigue
  • mood changes

Patients may also feel a sense of overall euphoria, which can be a welcome relief for those struggling with chronic pain or other health issues. Generally speaking, these side effects are usually mild and not a huge cause for concern. If these side effects become uncomfortable or at all worrisome, you should reach out to your prescribing specialist. They will be able to adjust your treatment plan or dosage to better suit your needs and manage any potential side effects.

Determining the right dosage and administration methods

There are quite a few factors that need to be considered when determining the right dosage and administration methods for medical cannabis treatment. These include the specific health condition being treated, the patient's age, weight, and overall health status, as well as any other medications they are taking, and how they respond to cannabis-based medication.

In most cases, titration is recommended.

Titration refers to starting with a low dose and gradually increasing it until the desired effect is achieved. This allows patients to find their ideal dosage without experiencing any adverse effects from taking too much at once.

It's also important to note that different administration methods can affect how quickly and effectively the medication works, and how long the effects last.

  • Inhalation of dried cannabis flower or oil through a vaporiser is a popular method, as it works quickly and tends to last for 2 to 3 hours. Smoking medical cannabis products is illegal in the UK.
  • Sublingual application refers to placing a few drops of liquid cannabis extract under the tongue. This method is not as fast as inhalation, but the effects will usually be felt within 10 to 15 minutes and usually lasts 2 to 3 hours.
  • Oral administration of edible products or oils offers a slower onset of effects (30 minutes to 2 hours) but may last longer (up to 6 hours). This method is also discreet and convenient, making it a popular choice for many patients.
  • Topical application of creams and ointments can provide targeted relief for localised pain and inflammation. This method is non-invasive, the effects usually last 2 to 3 hours, and come with zero chance of psychoactive effects.

The importance of monitoring and ongoing care

Follow-ups with your prescribing specialist are critical to ensure the effectiveness and safety of your medical cannabis treatment.

We briefly discussed the fact that as your body starts to become more used to cannabis-based therapy, your dosage may need to be adjusted. Regular follow-ups and check-ins with your doctor can help ensure that you are consistently getting the most out of your treatment plan.

Starting medical cannabis can involve a bit of trial and error, but with the right specialist and ongoing care, it can provide life-changing relief for elderly patients struggling with various health conditions.

How senior patients can access medical cannabis in the UK

Currently, there are two paths for accessing medical cannabis in the UK:

  1. Private clinics: Private clinics offer a more streamlined process, allowing patients to consult with specialist doctors and receive prescriptions for medical cannabis products that are not currently available on the NHS.
  2. NHS route: The NHS can also prescribe medical cannabis products, but only for three specific conditions: two rare forms of epilepsy, muscle stiffness and spasticity relating to multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

Most UK cannabis patients will need to go through the private clinic route to access medical cannabis. Here at Releaf, we strive to make this process as smooth and convenient as possible for our patients.

How we support senior patients throughout their treatment journey

We understand that starting medical cannabis treatment can be overwhelming, intimidating, and just plain scary, especially when your health is at stake. We are committed to supporting our elderly patients every step of the way. Our knowledgeable and compassionate team is always here to answer any questions or concerns you may have about your treatment plan, dosage, administration methods, or potential side effects.

We have a handy eligibility checker which takes less than a minute to complete and will let you know if you are likely to qualify for treatment through our clinic. We also offer a fully virtual medical process, making it easier for elderly patients to access medical cannabis from the comfort of their own homes. Follow-up care is extremely important to us, and we regularly check in with our patients to ensure their treatment plan is working safely and effectively.

By taking the burden of navigating this complex field off your shoulders, we hope to make the medical cannabis experience as stress-free and successful as possible for all of our patients, elderly or not. 

Medical cannabis for the elderly in the UK: FAQs

How long does it take to get a prescription for medical cannabis?

The time frame can vary, but with our streamlined process at Releaf, patients can usually receive their prescriptions within 3 days to two weeks, depending on how quickly we receive your medical records and your availability for consultations.

Is medical cannabis safe for elderly patients?

Yes, it has an exceptionally high safety profile when prescribed and monitored by a qualified specialist. Our team is dedicated to ensuring our patients' safety and well-being throughout their treatment journey.

Will I get 'high' from medical cannabis?

That really depends on what products you are prescribed, and the dosage requirements, but as a general statement, products containing elevated levels of THC have the potential to create an intoxicating effect.

However, medical cannabis products typically contain lower levels of THC and higher levels of CBD, which can provide therapeutic benefits without causing psychoactive effects. Even if you are prescribed a high THC product, proper dosing and administration methods can help minimise any unwanted psychoactive effects.

Can I drive while using medical cannabis?

Normal driving laws apply to medical cannabis patients, which means that if you feel impaired or 'high' in any way, you must avoid driving and operating heavy machinery.

Looking ahead: The future of medical cannabis for the elderly in the UK

There are no crystal balls to gaze upon, and the industry is still in a state of flux, but the future of medical cannabis in the UK is looking bright. As more research and evidence emerge supporting its efficacy for so many conditions, we are hopeful that medical cannabis treatment will continue to gain recognition and acceptance.

For now, elderly patients can feel secure knowing that cannabis-based medicines are now a legal reality. If you are interested in finding out a little more about how medical cannabis may be able to help you, feel free to contact us or visit our website for more information. With Releaf, you can trust that you will receive compassionate care and expert guidance every step of the way.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Authors

Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

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Further reading

Trust your gut: IBS and medical cannabis

Cannabis has been used as a therapeutic for thousands of years, with evidence of its use in the treatment of gastrointestinal issues dating back centuries. Anecdotal evidence suggests that medical cannabis may be useful in the treatment of Intestinal Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and a growing body of clinical and observational evidence appears to support this potential.

Emily Ledger