Study Finds Frail Older Adults May Improve on Cannabis

Matt Weeks February 10, 2020 2 comments

Frail older adults who reduce pharmaceutical prescriptions and use cannabis as recommended show a decrease in frailty.

While many people understand the concept of frailty, medical research struggles for a precise definition. According to the latest consensus, frailty breaks down into three segments: a state of vulnerability, a troubled relationship between demands and abilities, and an impending or current disability. Frail older adults tend to suffer from malnutrition, often remain indoors for extended periods, have a weak demeanor, and are prone to sickness and falling.

The new study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society (2019), finds one major predictor of frailty is the use of prescription drugs for pain and/or sleep — something that a large number of seniors do. When older Americans combine prescription medications, their likelihood of falling frail increases significantly.

Replacing one or more appropriate prescription medications with cannabis, may provide the same pain relieving and sleep-inducing properties as pharmaceuticals, could therefore have a positive effect on the health and mobility of seniors.

Studying Frail Older Adults

The study surveyed more than 7,000 seniors between the ages of 65 and 104, over an eight-year period. During that time, the researchers noted the prescription drug use and frailty of each individual. The results are startling.

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Participants who reported regular use of prescription medications for pain and sleep showed a ninety five percent increased risk of frailty over seniors who did not use any drugs for pain and sleep. Those who took pain pills were fifty eight percent more likely to become frail, while those who took prescription sleep medication were thirty five percent more likely to become frail.

In an environment where today’s geriatrics are more likely to report taking multiple prescriptions, these are troubling statistics.

If seniors can avoid becoming frail, it’s in their best interests (as well as the interests of their families) to do so. Frailty is often accompanied by decreased emotional and mental health, which can turn the “Golden Years” into lonely old age.

frail older adult uses cane

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Can Cannabis Help Frail Older Adults?

Becoming frail isn’t something that automatically happens to older people. Many seniors live without frailty and lead happier, easier lives. Common features of frailty include undernutrition, dependence, prolonged bed rest, pressure ulcers, gait disorders, generalized weakness, weight loss, anorexia, fear of falling, dementia, hip fracture, delirium, confusion, and a reluctance to go outdoors frequently.

Luckily, many of those same symptoms happen to be treatable by cannabis.

For example, anorexia and weight loss are both recognized conditions for medical cannabis treatment. Consuming cannabis helps stoke appetite by bolstering the sense of smell, which is vital for tasting food, and boosting the “hunger signals” from the gut to the brain. This can remind seniors to eat and make the experience more pleasant. When seniors eat more, they often gain better nutrition and more energy, reducing their risk of falling frail.

Cannabis is also a proven memory-booster, despite the myths. And regular consumption is tied to improved clarity in dementia patients and those with Alzheimer’s.

A Way to Ward off Frailty

Not only does cannabis treat the symptoms of frailty — the new study suggests weed can prevent frailty altogether.

“Our study shows that regular self-reported use and co-use of prescription drugs for pain and for sleep are significantly associated with increased incidence of frailty,” said co-author Andrew Bergen, of the Oregon Research Institute in a press release.

The way to combat this is to prescribe fewer prescription drugs. However that doesn’t mean shutting seniors out of care altogether. If older North Americans are in pain and not sleeping well, those are significant problems that also lead to poor health.

Instead, seniors and those who care for them may consider trying cannabis first. Patients report that it effectively manages pain and induces sleep. Plus, it has a better safety profile than many prescription medications. This could be why the fastest-growing demographic of new cannabis consumers are seniors.

For those who want to “start low and go slow,” or who live in a state where medical cannabis is hard to come by, CBD is a great and easy way to get into green medicine. It’s also been federally legalized, thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill.

CBD — one of the active ingredients in cannabis — does not cause the intoxicating “high” feeling that cannabis (THC) can produce. Instead, it leads to a subtle mellow feeling.

frail older adult uses cane

Seniors Replacing Prescriptions with Cannabis

Nobody wants their parents or grandparents to become frail. Frailty robs seniors of independence and happiness. It places a greater burden on caregivers. And it keeps older adults from experiencing one of the best aspects of retirement – freedom.

Plus, the kinds of prescriptions that many seniors receive for pain and sleep come with terrible side effects. Opioids are ruining America. They’re causing accidental overdoses and a large spike in addiction. Those addicted to opioids aren’t able to live their best life.

Cannabis may have pharmacology to replace several of the medicine seniors take. More research is needed I many areas, but it is a promising prospect. Cannabis is natural, virtually side effect-free, and easy to find. A happy, pain-free grandparent is preferable to a frail one. It’s time we do more to help our seniors, starting with pushing for research into effective cannabis treatments.

Author avatar

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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  1. David Branstetter

    I have used cannabis for 47 years to relieve severe muscle spasms resulting from a spinal cord injury in 1969. Cannabis gave me a quality of life I couldn’t have had without it. I’m still using every day to maintain my good health. I’m now 71 and doing very well..💚