ANN ARBOR, Mich. — More Americans over the age of 50 are using cannabis now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s according to a new poll conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan. Among a sample of over 2,000 older adults (ages 50-80), 12 percent said they had consumed a product containing THC within the past year and four percent reported doing so multiple times per week.
While studies suggest that cannabis may offer potential benefits, researchers caution their findings suggest a need for more education and screening among older adults for cannabis-related risks. Notably, older adults reporting high levels of alcohol use had a much higher rate of cannabis use as well.
“As the stress of the pandemic and the increased legalization of cannabis by states converged, our findings suggest cannabis use increased among older adults nationally. Older adults represent a vulnerable age group for cannabis use due to interactions with medications, risky driving, cannabis-related mental health impacts and increased possibility of falls and memory issues,” says study leader Anne Fernandez, Ph.D., an addiction psychologist in the U-M Addiction Center and Department of Psychiatry, in a media release.
The data used for this analysis was provided by U-M’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with funding from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. The poll, encompassing 2,023 older adults, was held in January 2021, nine months after the official pandemic declaration and just as the first COVID-19 vaccines became available to high-risk groups.
The 12 percent using cannabis over the past year is notably higher than the 9.5 percent in 2019, and much higher than the three percent reported in a 2006 study. Back then, only 12 U.S. states had legalized medical cannabis laws. The NPHA, meanwhile, reported in 2017 that six percent of older adults were using cannabis for medical purposes.
Additionally, the latest poll also reports another five percent of older adults use cannabis once a month or less. Importantly, the survey asked about use of any product containing THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis (including edibles) and used numerous common names for cannabis. The poll did not differentiate between medical and recreational use of cannabis.
Those who were also unemployed, older adults who said they were unmarried and had no partner, and those who said they drank alcohol, were more likely to use marijuana. Dr. Fernandez notes an especially concerning finding:
- People with alcohol use high enough to potentially cause physical and psychological harm were close to eight times as likely to use cannabis in the past year.
This group of dual-substance users is one that doctors and public health officials need to pay special attention to, Dr. Fernandez suggests.
“Other research has shown that using both alcohol and cannabis increases the chance that a person will drive while impaired,” Fernandez explains. “They are also more likely to have physical and mental health issues, including substance use disorders. Screening for alcohol use, cannabis use, and other drug use could help more people get counseling and reduce their risk and risk to others.”
Researchers didn’t note any statistical differences among older adults by age, health or mental health status, income, or education. However, those coming from a Hispanic background were less likely than non-Hispanic older adults to use cannabis. Dr. Fernandez adds this is consistent with other studies that have shown lower cannabis use in the Latino community.
The doctor recommends older adults who use cannabis products for any reason to be open with their health care provider about it, especially if they also drink alcohol or take certain medications. Physicians, nurse practitioners, and pharmacists, on the other hand, can offer guidance on if any medications a person is taking might interact with cannabis. Common examples include drugs for insomnia, depression and anxiety, opioid-containing pain medications, seizure medications, and blood thinners.
The study is published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.
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