Cannabis Information for Older Adults

Cannabis is a plant that has chemicals called cannabinoids. The most common cannabinoids are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). 

  • THC affects your brain to make you feel “high” and changes how you think, feel and act. The higher the level of THC, the greater the intoxicating effects.  
  • THC is mostly responsible for the health risks associated with cannabis.
  • CBD does not cause intoxicating effects and can lessen the THC effects. CBD is being studied for possible medical uses.

Everyone’s response to cannabis is different and can vary from one time to the next.  If you have used cannabis earlier in life, the effects today can be different because the THC potency in cannabis has increased. Older adults are more likely to experience harm from cannabis because of age-related changes.

The aging process can affect how older adults respond to cannabis.

As we age, our body and mind functions begin to slow down. Some of these changes will affect how THC and CBD are processed in the body.

  • Lower kidney function can affect how drugs, including cannabis, are cleared out of the body.
  • Symptoms of poor lung health or disease can be worsened when cannabis is smoked or vaped.
  • The digestive system slows down, and liver function is reduced, affecting how the body processes and removes cannabis from the body.
  • Changes to muscles, bones, and sensory functions (vision, hearing and smell) can increase the risk of falls or injuries. This risk would be higher when using THC because it is impairing.

Older adults with a heart condition are at greater risk for a heart attack or stroke. 

Smoking cannabis can raise your heart rate and blood pressure. This increases the risk of a cardiac event such as arrhythmia, angina, heart attack or stroke, for those with heart conditions.

Cannabis can lower your blood pressure, which can cause people to faint.

Cannabis can affect your prescription drugs and medications. 

Cannabis is a drug and can affect how other medications work. If you are currently taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications, it is important to talk to your health care provider or pharmacist. They can assess any interaction cannabis may have with your medications. 

Cannabis affects how your brain works.

THC acts on different parts of the brain to change how you think, feel and act. This can include feeling high, having trouble concentrating, slower reaction, and distorted perceptions. These effects can last between 6 to 12 hours depending on the amount of THC and the way the cannabis was consumed. These changes increase the chance of injuries and make it unsafe to drive.

Regular use of THC can cause problems with how your brain works. This can include mental abilities such as memory, concentration, thinking and making decisions.

Consuming cannabis (THC) as a teenager can lead to lasting effects on your mental abilities as you get older. THC changes how the brain develops and how it works when you consume cannabis often at an early age. These changes can be permanent even if you have stopped consuming cannabis.

Cannabis can lead to mental health challenges.

Older adults can experience loneliness, isolation, depression or loss. Using cannabis to cope could make mental health challenges worse.

Regular use can lead to a cannabis use disorder or dependence. If you are dependent, it can be hard to cut back or stop using. It can cause unpleasant feelings like:

  • Feeling irritable or anxious,
  • Having an upset stomach,
  • Trouble sleeping,
  • Loss of appetite and
  • Sweating.

Using cannabis can raise the risk of experiencing psychosis and schizophrenia if you have a family history of these conditions. Temporary psychosis is possible if you consume too much THC at one time. Symptoms include paranoia, delusions and hallucinations.

Use Cannabis Responsibly – how to lower the risks from using cannabis.

Due to the health risks, older adults with the following conditions should consider not using cannabis:

  • Heart conditions or unstable blood pressure
  • Cognitive impairments or problems with balance
  • History of mental health challenges or substance use disorders

If you are planning to use cannabis, read more information about using legally and follow these lower risk tips.

Using cannabis for medical purposes.

Choosing to use cannabis for medical purposes should be done in consultation with a health care provider. The evidence of the effectiveness and safety of cannabis for treating medical conditions is still emerging. The limited evidence that is available is not specific to older adults. There are studies that show some potential medical benefit for the use of cannabis in these specific cases such as:

  • Nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy
  • Muscle contractions or stiffness associated with multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic neuropathic pain
  • Palliative and end-of-life pain

For more information, visit Health Canada on Medical use of cannabis  and Consumer information on Cannabis.

For print resources, click here

Know where to go for help 

Don’t hesitate to get help if using cannabis is affecting your life. There are places to go to if you need help managing your use or if you have withdrawal symptoms.

If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, seek help from: 

Signs you may need help with your cannabis or other drug use inclue:

  • Ignoring responsibilities at work, at home, or in the community.
  • Giving up activities that you find important or enjoyable.
  • Using the drug more often.
  • Feeling unable to cut down or manage your use.
  • Changes in mood (e.g., feeling irritable and paranoid).
  • Changing friends.
  • Having difficulties with family members.
  • Being secretive or dishonest.
  • Changing sleep habits, appetite, or other behaviors.

Learn more about local mental health and substance use health services.

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