Seniors/Aging: Plenty to consider before taking marijuana

Gary was diagnosed with dementia three years ago. With his dementia progressing, and mood changes and insomnia becoming more frequent, his family is wondering whether Cannabis would improve his mood.

Cannabis Sativa is the formal name of the plant often referred to as ‘marijuana.’ Many different types of products can be derived from different parts of the cannabis plants. The viable seeds, leaves and/or flowers of cannabis plant are referred to as Marijuana.

Marijuana was legalized for medical use in Canada in 2001. Now, with the impending legalization of recreational marijuana this summer, Canadians are curious to know whether cannabis-derived products are effective and safe for people with a variety of health conditions.

Cannabis plants contain several active compounds, collectively referred to as cannabinols, in varying amounts. The best-known of these compounds are THC (tetrahydrocannbinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the compound responsible for many of the popularly associated effects of cannabis, including a sense of euphoria or “high.”

THC is often prescribed for those suffering from severe nausea during chemotherapy treatment, and those with loss of appetite due to HIV/AIDS or other medical conditions.

However, CBD does not appear to have the same intoxicating effects as THC, so it is often used in an oil-based form to treat chronic health conditions, especially childhood epilepsy unresponsive to medical treatment. There is some evidence that CBD may be effective for cancer-associated pain, anxiety and depression, and pain associated with Multiple Sclerosis.

Several studies have examined both the effects of THC and CBD on dementia, while others have looked at the effect of cannabinoids in general.

A few clinical trials have shown that cannabis or its components have minimal benefits in managing some symptoms of the condition, such as agitation and aggression.

A few other clinical trials have assessed the effects of cannabinoids on neuropsychiatric or behavioural symptoms of dementia. However, scientific reviews have found that the trials have generally been small or of low quality, making it difficult to come to an informed conclusion.

However, no studies or trials have looked into the effects of cannabis or its components on the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease in people.

Very often, experimental drugs that yield positive results in lab studies and animal studies perform poorly in human trials.

It is also worth noting that many of these studies have involved a particular component of cannabis in isolation. Even if one component is found to influence dementia risk, it doesn’t necessarily mean that taking cannabis would have the same effect.

There is also a large amount of variation in the levels of THC and CBD in different strains of the plant so the effects could depend on the type of cannabis used.

Cannabis should not be used if you have serious liver, kidney, heart, or lung disease, or if you have a personal or family history of a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis or depression.

Moreover, Cannabinoids can interact with several medications including sleeping pills, tranquilizers, pain medications, allergy/cold medications, some antidepressants, some heart medications, some stomach-acid medications etc. and cause serious adverse reactions. Please consult your family physician before you start taking cannabis.

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to

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