THC and CBD Benefits for Seniors: Still TBD?

Jillian Jastrzembski

As we age, we may find ourselves more and more interested in the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and cannabinoids. Age often brings along with it increased incidence of musculoskeletal pain, neurodegenerative diseases, digestive issues, and even anxiety or insomnia.

That’s why in this article, we’re asking the question: can seniors benefit from the active compounds found in cannabis?

To answer this, we need to tackle two issues. First of all, we have to differentiate between the compounds found in cannabis, whether that’s THC, CBD, or a whole plant extract. We tend to talk a lot about the therapeutic benefits of cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD is thought to have many valuable anti-aging properties. Not only does it have an analgesic effect, but it may promote healing through anti-inflammatory action. It may also prevent oxidative stress and restore healthy gut microbiota, both key biological markers for healthy aging.

But does CBD deserve all the credit? In this article, we’ll check out whether THC also has benefits. We’ll talk about different scenarios, specific to seniors, where it’s better to have THC, CBD, or the whole plant extract.

The second issue is that almost all cannabis studies are done on younger populations. As we age, our physiology changes, which means cannabinoids may affect us differently. It is even potentially dangerous to take the results of studies performed on younger people and try to apply them to an older population. Seniors are more vulnerable to potential side effects and safety issues from cannabis, like loss of balance and adverse interactions with medications.

That’s why, in this article, we’ll look specifically at studies performed in older populations to see if THC and cannabis can have therapeutic benefits.

Does THC Have Therapeutic Benefits?

Of the few studies that investigate THC therapy in seniors, the treatments can vary. Sometimes researchers look at the effects of smoked cannabis. If smoked cannabis is being studied, the participants are getting both THC and CBD – plus a bunch of other compounds that may or may not be contributing.

There’s another version of a whole plant extract, which is a pharmaceutical called nabiximols. Because it’s a whole plant extract, nabiximols also contains CBD (and other compounds), making it difficult to differentiate where the benefits are coming from.

The closest we can usually get to a study of THC in the absence of CBD is in studies involving pharmaceuticals such as nabilone or dronabinol. Dronabinol is a synthetic version of THC. Chemically, it is like delta-9-THC (aka THC) found in cannabis. However, instead of being extracted from a plant, it is made in a lab. So, it’s easier to control what else is in there.

There’s also a pharmaceutical called nabilone, which is a synthetic analog of THC. Unlike dronabinol, it is not the same as delta-9-THC. However, it is chemically quite similar, so it acts on the same receptors. At the same time, it is much more potent than delta-9-THC. It may also exert different biological effects on the body. This is analogous to the way delta-8-THC is the same, but different.

Therefore, if we’re going to see if THC has therapeutic benefits for seniors, we have two options. One option is to look at studies involving dronabinol (not nabilone). This will allow us to see if delta-9-THC alone has a therapeutic effect. This can help us to understand the basic principles at play. Of course, the findings should be taken with a grain of salt, since these medications are not phytocannabinoids.

 

Another option is to look at smoked cannabis or whole plant extract, and see if it offers more benefits compared to CBD alone. This approach allows us to observe synergistic effects that may be at play. THC may have a therapeutic effect but only in the presence of other cannabinoids and terpenes. This is the thinking that stands behind the popular belief that whole plants can be better than single compounds. For example, sometimes we hear the idea that herbal medicine is preferable to pharmaceuticals. In the world of cannabis, this is called the entourage effect.

Read here about CBD for Tinnitus.

There’s lots of evidence to support that theory, and it certainly is an appealing idea. However, as we’ll see next, there are actually some cases where THC alone was shown to be more effective compared to a whole plant extract.

Now that we’ve laid out some ground rules, let’s look at studies performed in older populations to see if THC or cannabis can help with some common ailments.

Chronic Pain

An increase in chronic pain is one of the major signs of aging. Since cannabis is widely thought to have an analgesic effect, many people suffering from pain may self-prescribe it. Smoking cannabis is tricky to study, because it’s difficult to control or measure how much cannabis is getting into the system, and what other factors are at play.

In a 2010 randomized controlled trial, smoked cannabis was shown to improve pain scores for patients suffering from neuropathic (nerve-related) pain. Randomized controlled trials are considered to be the most reliable type of research, because they control all the other “confounding” variables that could potentially be skewing the results.

However, since CBD is also present in smoked cannabis, it is uncertain from that study if THC alone is exerting a therapeutic effect, or if the benefits are coming from CBD alone. CBD has already been shown to have an analgesic effect for many chronic pain conditions, and furthermore has anti-inflammatory properties that can promote healing and improve motor function.

To get a better idea of the role of THC, we can look to a study involving dronabinol. Remember, dronabinol is chemically identical to delta-9-THC. Another randomized controlled trial in 2008 demonstrated that Dronabinol (synthetic THC) was effective at reducing pain in patients otherwise dependent on opioids.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders increase as we age. Many people smoke cannabis to help soothe their anxiety. Is it possible that seniors could benefit from THC?

Although some people may report short-term anxiety relief from cannabis, cannabis is actually shown to increase anxiety long-term. While CBD is shown to reduce anxiety, THC may have the opposite effect. So, if reducing anxiety is your goal, better to stick with CBD.

If you still prefer cannabis, then you can look for a higher ratio of CBD to THC, since CBD helps to mitigate the negative effects of THC. Some research also suggests that the semi-synthetic cannabinoid delta-8-THC, while still psychotropic, is less likely to cause anxiety.

Sleep

Many people associate cannabis consumption with improved sleep quality, but is it really the case? Studies have shown that, while people expect to have improved sleep under the influence of cannabis, sleep quality actually decreases. CBD, on the other hand, does have a sedating effect and can result in improved sleep quality. In fact, this effect is more pronounced for an older population. This could be because metabolism slows as we age, so CBD spends more time in your system.

This pattern is similar to the pattern we observed to cannabis for anxiety, and it can be approached the same way. Consuming a higher ratio of CBD to THC will help improve the sedating effects of cannabis if you choose to go that route.

Eating Disorders

Another condition that can affect elderly people is a lack of desire to eat. This can come alongside grief, depression, anxiety, or neurodegenerative disorders like dementia. As you may well have observed, cannabis often brings along with it a case of the “munchies.” Is cannabis or THC an effective appetite stimulant for eating disorders affecting the elderly?

A placebo-controlled trial did show that dronabinol could assist with weight gain for elderly people suffering from dementia. However, this study was small and generally not considered to be sufficient evidence.

Safety Considerations

It is worth noting that, although some of the data around THC in elderly people is inconclusive, it is generally considered safe enough to continue studying. Side effects such as dizziness, fatigue, and disorientation were not a major concern for most patients. For example, older people with dementia were able to tolerate up to 5 mg/day.

Older people are more likely to be following complicated medication protocols and should consult with a doctor before taking cannabis products to avoid negative interactions.

The Take-Away

As you’ve noticed, when we talk about THC and CBD in a scientific context, they’re often followed up by a third, much less fun acronym: TBD. To be determined. So, it helps to remember that there are three things at play here: marketing, science, and experience. While marketing often jumps to conclusions, and science often lags behind, your experience is the most important assessment. If it works for you and it’s safe, it’s not very important whether or not it has been proven yet.

If you need some guidance on which products to try, feel free to contact us for a free consultation.

THC and CBD Benefits for Seniors: Still TBD?
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As we age, we may find ourselves more interested in the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids. Can seniors benefit from the active compounds found in cannabis?
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THC and CBD Benefits for Seniors: Still TBD?
March 11, 2024
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