Why There's A Rise In ER Visits Among Older Americans Using Cannabis

As more states legalize medical marijuana, older adults are asking their doctors if it can help them cope with some of their medical conditions (via UCHealth). According to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, about 15% of older adults said they used cannabidiol (CBD) products in the last three years to manage pain, sleep problems, anxiety, or depression. Marijuana use has been on the rise among adults over 65, increasing from 0.4% between 2006 and 2007 to 2.9% around 2015 and 2016, as per a 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Now emergency rooms are seeing an increase in cannabis-related visits among adults over 65 years old. A new report from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that cannabis-related ER visits in California increased by 1804% from 2005 to 2019. This can be due to dizziness and falls, heart palpitations, panic attacks, confusion, anxiety, or worsening of underlying lung diseases, such as asthma or COPD, explains the lead author of the study, Dr. Benjamin Han via U.S. News & World Report. In fact, older adults are prone to a higher risk of reactions due to using cannabis because of how unfamiliar they are with it, shares Dr. Han. Cannabis can treat side effects from chemotherapy, certain forms of epilepsy, and weight loss connected to HIV/AIDS, and might even help manage chronic pain, explains the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. However, there are specific risks of cannabis use associated with older adults.

Is cannabis less safe in older adults?

People over 55 years of age process drugs differently overall (via Canada's Department of Health). As we age, we become more sensitive to drugs and might be more susceptible to their side effects. Using cannabis while taking other prescriptions could increase side effects. These side effects include hallucinations, confusion, loss of coordination, and cognitive impairment. Cannabis may temporarily raise the heart rate, and this can, in turn, increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke if you have heart disease. In fact, those with liver, kidney, or heart disease should not use cannabis at all.

Cannabis is also much stronger today than it was years ago. A 2019 study in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience found that average THC concentrations in marijuana jumped from 8.9% in 2008 to 17% in 2017. This can cause a problem for older adults since an aging brain is highly sensitive to psychoactive drugs and their slower metabolism means it takes longer for them to process the drug, according to the UCHealth. Keep in mind, some medical marijuana stores might not even be able to advise older adults on an acceptable dose or how it might handle certain conditions. Therefore, for seniors to use marijuana safely, they should look for a higher ratio of the anti-inflammatory CBD compared to the psychoactive THC.