Study: Use of Cannabis Long-Term Not Associated with Cognitive Differences in Older Adults

Haifa, Israel: Older adults who consume cannabis for chronic pain show no differences in cognitive performance as compared to non-users, according to data published in the journal Drug & Alcohol Review.

Israeli researchers assessed the cognitive capabilities of 63 long-term medical cannabis consumers versus 62 non-using controls. (Medical cannabis is permitted by prescription in Israel.) Participants in the study suffered from chronic pain and averaged 61 years of age. Cognitive tests used in the study assessed participants’ memory recall, reaction time, and ability to learn new information, among other performance measures.

Investigators identified “no significant differences in cognitive function” between the two groups. They wrote: “In this sample of individuals with neuropathic pain, no significant differences were found in cognitive performance between non-MC [medical cannabis] licensed and licensed patients, and evidence for lack of an association was stable and moderate. In addition, no significant associations of various aspects of MC use patterns, including THC/CBD concentration, frequency and length of use, dosage and length of abstinence with cognitive performance were detected. Moreover, both MC licensed and non-licensed patients performed relatively similar to a standardized population with no chronic pain.”

Authors concluded: “More accepting public attitudes and policies related to cannabis use, in addition to increasing life expectancy, are expected to result in increasing numbers of middle- and old-aged individuals who use cannabis for long periods. Considering the accumulating evidence showing efficacy of cannabis use for multiple health conditions common in older individuals, the lack of adverse effects on the brain in the current sample of individuals with chronic pain who were older than 50 years can contribute to a better risk–benefit assessment of MC treatment in this population.”

Recently compiled demographic data shows rising cannabis use among the elderly. In addition, several recently published studies — such as those here, here, here, and here — report that medical cannabis use by seniors is relatively safe and effective at mitigating pain and improving self-reported quality of life. Most recently, the findings of a literature review published in the September issue of the Canadian Geriatrics Journal determined, “low-dose, short-term medical cannabis does not carry significant risk of serious mental health and cognitive adverse effects in older adults without prior psychiatric history.”

Commenting on the study’s results, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: “With greater percentages of seniors both turning to, and returning to, the use of cannabis, it is important that scientists begin to focus greater attention on this unique and frequently overlooked group of consumers. We already know that many seniors suffer from ailments that may be effectively treated with cannabis, and this emerging data suggests that they can do so in a manner that poses little if any risk to their cognitive well-being.”

An abstract of the study, “Medical cannabis and cognitive performance in middle to older adults treated for chronic pain,” appears online.