Why Seniors Should Consider Cannabis Over Opioids

byMichael Warford6 minutes

The opioid crisis is one of the most urgent public health emergencies currently facing Canada. Between January 2016 and June 2018 alone, opioids claimed more than 9,000 lives across the country.

So far, most of these deaths have occurred among younger and middle-aged adults—but the prevalence of opioid abuse among the senior population is growing.

A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that in 2015 and 2016, one out of every five noninstitutionalized seniors in the U.S. filled at least one opioid prescription and that 7% filled four or more opioid prescriptions, which is considered to be highly frequent opioid use.

While recent statistics in Canada are harder to come by, it seems reasonable to assume that opioid use among seniors here is similar.

Opioid addiction among seniors is an underreported problem, but it’s one that should hardly come as a surprise. Seniors are much more likely to suffer from health conditions that are often treated with opioids, like:

  • Arthritis
  • Broken bones
  • Cancer

In fact, in Canada about 27% of seniors who live at home and about 38% who live in healthcare institutions suffer from chronic pain.

Unfortunately, doctors prescribe opioid drugs to many seniors with chronic pain. These pharmaceuticals are highly addictive and, as the ongoing opioid crisis proves, incredibly dangerous. This tendency to prescribe opioids for pain management is unfortunate given that there are alternatives, namely cannabis, that can help seniors control their pain with far fewer risks.

How Cannabis Can Help Treat Pain

There’s an impressive body of research showing that cannabis is effective at relieving various types of pain.

A study by researchers at Harvard University, for instance, found that there was “high-quality evidence” to support the use of medical marijuana for:

  • Chronic pain
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Spasticity related to multiple sclerosis

Animal Study Shows CBD Can Ease Arthritis Pain

A study performed on rats found that topical CBD has the potential to reduce pain and inflammation caused by arthritis.

Cannabis’s plausible pain-relieving properties linked to arthritis are especially encouraging for seniors. While overall one in five Canadians have arthritis, that figure rises to one in two Canadians over 65.


Marijuana May Provide Temporary Relief From Glaucoma-Related Pain

However, arthritis obviously isn’t the only painful health condition that seniors are more likely to suffer from. The American Academy of Family Physicians has found that 75% of individuals who are blind due to glaucoma are seniors. Glaucoma can cause pressure in the eye and can lead to a number of painful symptoms including:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Eye pain

While more research is needed, there’s some evidence that marijuana may provide temporary relief from glaucoma-related discomfort.


Cannabis Can Help Calm Cancer Pain & Related Side Effects

Cancer is another disease commonly associated with age. In fact, 90% of new cancer cases in Canada occur in those aged 50 and over.

Medical marijuana has long been used by cancer patients as cannabis seems to alleviate the pain associated with cancer and cancer treatment. Cancer patients also report that marijuana can lessen other side effects of cancer treatment such as nausea.

People With Alzheimer’s Disease Seem More Susceptible to Opioids’ Side Effects

Many Alzheimer’s patients use cannabis to counteract some of the symptoms of the disease. Scientific research suggests that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the main psychoactive compound in cannabis—has potential therapeutic benefits for Alzheimer’s patients. Specifically, cannabis can be used to help combat health conditions commonly related to Alzheimer’s, including loss of appetite and depression.

And there are estimates that of the 35 million people around the world who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease, 50% also deal with routine pain. Unfortunately, doctors prescribe many Alzheimer’s patients opioids to deal with that pain. But studies are showing that people with Alzheimer’s are more sensitive to opioids and so doses of those pharmaceuticals which are considered “normal” may have even more of an adverse effect on folks suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.


Cannabis May Help Seniors Get Off of Opioids

All of this evidence shows that cannabis should at least be strongly considered when deciding how to manage pain and other health conditions that seniors are more likely to suffer from. Ensuring patients aren’t put on opioids unless they absolutely need to be will go a long way towards protecting seniors from opioid addiction.

However, for seniors who already use opioids, cannabis also offers hope. A recent study out of Israel surveyed 2,736 patients aged 65 and older who were prescribed medical marijuana, mostly for pain related to cancer. The study found that 93% of respondents saw their pain drop. And, perhaps just as exciting, 18% of patients reduced or stopped their opioid medications after six months of medical marijuana treatment. The study also showed that there were no significant side effects on elderly patients taking medical marijuana.


Social Stigma Is Still a Barrier for Cannabis Consumption Among Seniors

These types of results show just how much potential cannabis holds for elderly patients. However, challenges do remain. As is often the case with cannabis, a lot more research still needs to be done. A century of prohibition means that science is trying to catch up to figure out how and why so many patients are having success managing their pain with cannabis. As the studies above demonstrate, however, research is increasingly showing that cannabis’s therapeutic benefits are real.

But the biggest challenge of getting older Canadians to treat their pain with cannabis is not so much a lack of research, but a lingering social stigma. For example, while support for cannabis legalization is strong across all age groups, it tends to be weakest among older Canadians. An Abacus Data poll found that 64% of Canadians 60 and older supported legalization—the lowest of any age group—compared with 81% of those aged 18–29.


Fortunately, attitudes are changing. The fact that a majority of older Canadians do support legalization is remarkable given decades of misinformation about marijuana being a gateway drug.

While smoking cannabis may still be too big of a step for many seniors to take, other forms of consumption—like vaporizers, capsules and edibles—offer a gentler, more stigma-free introduction to cannabis.

In any case, given that Canada’s population will continue to age, it’s important that all Canadians know that cannabis is an option for pain management and one that holds many potential benefits over opioids.

Photo credit: Murilo Folgosi