Is it a good idea for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to use marijuana?

Doctor hand holding dry medical cannabis on table close up

Doctor writing a prescription for  medical marijuana

I live in Colorado, one of the few states where medical marijuana is legal, as well as recreational marijuana for adults 21 years or older. Before it was legal, my husband, who suffered from anxiety, stress and depression from Alzheimer’s disease, smoked it in a pipe and ate marijuana cookies and brownies. It calmed him down and, most importantly, put a grin back on his face. He would get happy, and although I did not partake it helped me to relax, too–just because he was happier and more relaxed.

How does marijuana help Alzheimer’s?

Numerous studies show that cannabis helps:

THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, helps reduce agitation and increase weight in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Anxiety is defined as the inability to settle down and includes behaviors such as verbal outbursts, pacing and restlessness, all of which may lead to patient combativeness. Additionally, Alzheimer’s patients often experience weight loss because they stop recognizing when they are hungry.

Clinical studies

Researchers at the Meridian Institute for Aging in New Jersey gave a daily dose of 10 to 20 milligrams of dronabinol (an artificial version of THC marketed under the name Marinol) to 48 patients who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and anorexia. After one month, two-thirds of the patients were significantly less agitated, and all of them had gained weight. There were no adverse side effects reported, such as falls, seizures or depression.Study results suggest dronabinol, a synthetic version of THC, the active ingredient in Cannabis sativa L (marijuana), may reduce agitation and lead to weight gain in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,

A 2014 preclinical study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that very small doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical found in marijuana, can slow the production of beta-amyloid proteins, thought to be a hallmark characteristic and key contributor to the progression of Alzheimer’s. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25024327. THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways. The study is among others to support the effectiveness of THC in prohibiting the growth of toxic amyloid plagues.

Co-author of the study, Neel Nabar, cautions against drawing quick conclusions from the study and says that numerous previous studies have shown that marijuana helps Alzheimer’s patients by reducing anxiety and inflammation, and improving appetite.

In this study, the researchers gave Alzheimer’s-afflicted mice various doses of pharmaceutical cannabinoids, which are 100 to 800 times more potent than marijuana compounds. The treated mice did not perform any better than untreated mice on memory tests, and they had just as much brain plaque formation as the untreated mice.

Can it reduce brain inflammation?

In 2005 researchers from Madrid’s Complutense University and the Cajal Institute published an article in the Journal of Neuroscience showing that  a synthetic cannabinoid appeared to reduce brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s.  Some researchers believe that reduction of this inflammation helps to prevent the mental decline associated with this disease.

Three years later, in March 2008, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain unveiled research showing that cannabis-based treatments could improve memory loss in Alzheimer’s sufferers.   Spanish researchers, this time working with a research team from Israel, found that one of the 400 compounds in the marijuana plant could significantly slow memory problems caused by the disease.  A by-product of their research was the finding that the same drug can also help Type 1 diabetes (formerly known as insulin dependent diabetes).

In observing my husband’s reaction to smoking pot and eating edibles, I can say that neither helped to improve or slow down his memory decline. 

In December 2008, results of a study showing that it’s the anti-inflammatory effect of cannabis that appears to help in Alzheimer’s disease were published.  Scientists continue to debate about the role inflammation of the brain plays in Alzheimer’s, and many researchers believe that it plays an important role in the dementia process.

The question comes up that if reduction of inflammation is all it takes to halt mental decline associated with Alzheimer’s, why doesn’t taking an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, help the condition?  Supposedly, anti-inflammatory drugs such as these have been shown in tests to help young brains, but not to help older brains.I have not found any such studies, but I do believe, along with numerous researchers, that inflammation is a major culprit in chronic disease.

Turmeric has been shown to be a traditional anti-inflammatory spice that has been found to have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s and dementia. Look for my future post about how turmeric supports memory and helps prevent dementia.

Therapeutic Cannabis Dosage for Alzheimer’s

According to Gary Wenk, Ph.D., author of the December 2008 study and professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University, “a puff is enough.”  He goes on to say that although this dose would probably have some sort of psychoactive effect strictly medical use is not ruled out.  The drug could be taken before bedtime, Wenk says, and with long-term use, tolerance to these psychoactive effects can develop, so impairment might be minimal with a steady dose anyway.

Don Abrams, M.D., chief of hematology/oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, has studied medical marijuana use in people with HIV for more than a decade. He says, “Cannabis is anti-inflammatory and it is also an antioxidant, and those are two things that we seek in treating neurodegenerative disorders.  It’s there, it’s in nature, if the research does find that it has these benefits, why not take advantage of it?”

Marijuana increases appetite and reduces anxiety

It’s important to note the difference, however, between these findings and the beneficial findings of other studies. Alzheimer’s patients often lose the ability to know whether they are hungry or not, and medical marijuana does help induce appetite. It also reduces anxiety. So, in the end, if you are considering giving your loved one medical marijuana for Alzheimer’s symptoms, be aware that it will probably not help improve memory. But it very well may help increase appetite and reduce anxiety.

My husband ate well until he was in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. By then, he would not have been able to ingest marijuana in any shape or form. But earlier in the disease process it helped him feel better when everything in his world was being tossed and turned upside down. If you are looking for an antidote to anxiety and depression, consider it for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia. If you prefer not to deal with the nasty odor (some people like it, I don’t) then ask your doctor about the pharmaceutical THC tincture. Or, you can always bake marijuana cookies and brownies. Just make sure they are in a container that is child-proof and hidden from your pets, visitors and children.

3 thoughts on “Is it a good idea for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to use marijuana?

  1. Great article on a taboo subject. I attend the university where Dr. Wenk works and his research is fascinating, I always attend his talk. He also has a great Ted talk where he discusses food and drugs affecting the brain, it’s a great watch: “The Brain Cafe.”

    Like

  2. Thank you for a very interesting article. I am caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s and although anxiety isn’t a huge problem right now, this is good info to have in the event it becomes a problem.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comment. You might want to check out my book “Calmer Water: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia.” It’s a holistic resource that contains dozens of tools and techniques to help caregivers feel happier, healthier, more confident, sleep better, have more stamina, and to find inner peace. It also contains many activities and healing modalities that both caregiver and the person being care for can do together or individually. The book is available everywhere books are sold, including public libraries. Best of luck to you.

      Liked by 1 person

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