Cannabis use by senior citizens is up by 75% from just three years ago, according to a study published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The spike in use by older Americans continues a trend that has now lasted for more than a decade.
According to the research, 4.2% of survey respondents age 65 and older reported using marijuana in some form in 2018. That’s up from 2.4% in 2015, a jump of 75%. Cannabis use by senior citizens has been on the rise since 2006 when only 0.5% reported that they used pot.
Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor in the division of geriatric medicine and palliative care at the New York University School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors, said that he’s noticed the increase in marijuana use by seniors in his geriatric practice.
“Ten years ago, no one asked me about cannabis use ever. Now, it’s a very common question when I’m in the clinic,” said Han. “I probably get asked about once a week. There’s a lot of interest.”
To conduct the study, researchers used data collected by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual representative survey of non-institutionalized adults in the U.S. Researchers analyzed answers from 14,000 senior citizens to conduct the study, finding large increases in cannabis use among several demographic subgroups of older Americans including women, people of color, those who reported receiving mental health treatment, individuals with diabetes, and those with higher family incomes.
Researchers Ponder Jump In Use
The survey didn’t ask respondents why they were using cannabis, which Han says is a limitation of the study. However, he believes that the increase in cannabis use by seniors is linked to changing policies and social attitudes.
“A lot of it is probably the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis, and destigmatization,” he said. “And, that we have more and more information about the use of cannabis for chronic illnesses.”
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula is a health policy and law expert at the University of Southern California who was not involved with the study. She agrees that information about why more seniors are reporting using cannabis would be helpful.
“I would argue that the mechanism is more important than the finding that cannabis use has gone up,” she said. “Have individuals been medically using it for a long time and are now 65 years and older or are these new people, 65 years and older, who are now willing to try cannabis?”
Han said that senior citizens aren’t typically thought of as drug users, an assumption he says many doctors should reconsider.
“As health care providers, we don’t do a very good job of screening older patients for substance use,” he said. “This is something we need to be asking, and be prepared to answer any questions about.”
Doctors should also know that the use of cannabis by senior citizens can have unintended consequences on their health and well-being.
“They’re more vulnerable to anything with psychoactive properties, like alcohol,” Han added. “These substances can also interact negatively with other prescribed drugs, and older patients with more chronic conditions more likely take more medications.”