Cannabis Use Among Older Adults Rises During Pandemic, Study Finds

A new study from the University of Michigan reveals that cannabis use among older adults has increased since the pandemic and the state-level legalization, especially among those who drink alcohol at risky levels. The study, which analyzed data from a national poll, suggests a need for more screening and education about the potential harms of cannabis for this age group.

The study, published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoids Research, found that 12% of older adults aged 50 to 80 reported using a product containing THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis, in the past year, and 4% reported using it multiple times a week. This is a significant increase from the 6% who reported using cannabis for medical purposes in a previous poll in 2017, and the 3% who reported using cannabis in any form in another study in 2006.

The study also found that cannabis use varied by demographic factors, such as age, gender, marital status, and employment status. Cannabis use was more common among younger older adults (aged 50 to 64), men, unmarried or partnered individuals, and unemployed individuals. Cannabis use was also more prevalent among those who lived in states where recreational cannabis was legal, compared to those who lived in states where only medical cannabis or no cannabis was legal.

Cannabis Use: A Risky Combination with Alcohol

The study also found that cannabis use was strongly associated with alcohol use, especially at levels that could cause physical and psychological harms. Those who drank alcohol at risky levels, defined as more than 14 drinks per week for men and more than seven drinks per week for women, were nearly eight times more likely to report using cannabis in the past year, compared to those who drank alcohol at low-risk levels. Even those who drank alcohol at low-risk levels, defined as less than three drinks per week for men and less than two drinks per week for women, were more than twice as likely to report using cannabis in the past year, compared to those who did not drink alcohol at all.

The study’s lead author, Anne Fernandez, Ph.D., an addiction psychologist at the U-M Addiction Center and Department of Psychiatry, said that the combination of cannabis and alcohol could pose serious health risks for older adults, such as impaired cognition, coordination, and judgment, increased risk of falls and injuries, and worsened mental health conditions. She also said that cannabis could interact with medications that older adults commonly take, such as blood thinners, antidepressants, and painkillers, and cause adverse effects.

Cannabis Use: A Need for More Education and Screening

The study’s authors said that the findings highlight the need for more education and screening for cannabis use among older adults, especially during the pandemic and the increased legalization of cannabis by states. They said that older adults may use cannabis for various reasons, such as coping with stress, pain, insomnia, or other medical conditions, but they may not be aware of the potential harms and risks of cannabis, or the available alternatives and resources.

The study’s authors recommended that health care providers and public health officials should ask older adults about their cannabis use, and provide them with accurate and evidence-based information about the benefits and harms of cannabis, and the interactions with alcohol and medications. They also suggested that older adults who use cannabis should be screened for alcohol use and other substance use disorders, and be offered appropriate treatment and support if needed.

The study’s authors also called for more research on the effects of cannabis on older adults, and the best ways to prevent and treat cannabis-related problems in this population. They said that as cannabis use becomes more common and accepted among older adults, it is important to understand the impact of cannabis on their health and well-being, and to develop effective and tailored interventions for this age group.

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