My husband passed away eight years ago from younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Recreational marijuana is now legal in Colorado, but before medical marijuana was legal I’d find a way to obtain it for him to smoke or eat in cookies and brownies. It calmed him down and made him happy. It reduced his anxiety, but it definitely did not help his memory. And that’s not what I was looking for. I just wanted him to feel calmer, and in so doing, it helped me feel more at ease. (Please read Is it a good idea for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to use marijuana?)
I am not a scientist, but having interpreted studies for the nutritional supplement industry for several decades I can say that it’s possible to find a pro and con study for almost any drug, nutraceutical, herb, vitamin or mineral. Every person is unique, every situation is unique and every environmental factor will influence the outcome of a scientific study in some way. This fact is especially interesting: Because of the federal restrictions, researchers’ only legal source of cannabis for study is a Mississippi farm. But the marijuana plants there are not necessarily identical to those that people get at the dispensary or on the street. Just another indication that studies don’t always demonstrate accurate findings.
Marijuana studies vary in quality and the conclusions are frequently conflicting, according to experts on the issue. What we do know is that marijuana contains hundreds of chemical compounds, the most powerful of which are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD. THC produces the psychoactive effects — the marijuana high. CBD has a role in pain control and also moderates the effect of THC. But many strains of marijuana in use today have high concentrations of THC and little CBD to balance it. The long-term effects of this shift are unknown.
Here are some recent studies showing the effects of marijuana use on cognition, dementia and heart health.
- It’s a known fact that high beta-amyloid—the culprit in Alzheimer’s disease—triggers inflammation and nerve cell death. This leads to memory loss and cognitive deficits. A study published in the journal Aging and Mechanisms of Disease (Amyloid proteotoxicity initiates an inflammatory response blocked by cannabinoids) found that the compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) reduced beta-amyloid levels and eradicated the inflammatory response to beta-amyloid, preventing nerve cellular death. While clinical trials are needed to confirm the role THC might play in protecting nerve cells against beta-amyloid, the researchers believe their findings shed more light on the role beta-amyloid plays in Alzheimer’s disease, which could pave the way for new treatments.
- Another study examined mice with induced symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The laboratory animals were given a combination of THC and CBD. The animals displayed improved learning and had less evidence of amyloid clumps in their bodies. Other researchers believe that targeting the CB2 receptor could control the activity of microglia, (a type of cell located throughout the brain and spinal cord) preventing the potentially harmful overactivation of the immune system in the brain.
- A Harvard study indicates that medical marijuana has a positive impact on executive functioning in adults. The study points out that medical marijuana products themselves may protect against the executive function deficits that affect most recreational marijuana users because of the inherent differences between medical and recreational products. Medical products are usually low in THC, the primary psychoactive constituent of the plant, and high in other cannabinoids, including CBD. CBD is a non-psychoactive component touted for its therapeutic potential, which may also mitigate some of the negative effects of THC. On self-report questionnaires, patients also indicated moderate improvements in quality of sleep and depression. Obviously, individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s are not making important decisions, but this study shows how cannabis can help with sleep and mood.
- Research presented in March 2017 at the American College of Cardiology’s 66th Annual Scientific Session showed that using marijuana raises the vascular risks of stroke and heart failure, both major risk factors leading to vascular dementia. Research in cell cultures shows that heart muscle cells have cannabis receptors relevant to contractility, or squeezing ability, suggesting that those receptors might be one mechanism through which marijuana use could affect the cardiovascular system. The study drew data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, which includes the health records of patients admitted at more than 1,000 hospitals comprising about 20 percent of U.S. medical centers. Researchers extracted records from young and middle-aged patients—age 18-55 years—who were discharged from hospitals in 2009 and 2010, when marijuana use was illegal in most states. Marijuana use was diagnosed in about 1.5 percent (316,000) of more than 20 million health records included in the analysis. Comparing cardiovascular disease rates in these patients to disease rates in patients not reporting marijuana use, researchers found marijuana use was associated with a significantly increased risk for cardiovascular events such as stroke, heart failure, coronary artery disease and sudden cardiac death. Marijuana use was also linked with a variety of factors known to increase cardiovascular risk, such as obesity, high blood pressure, smoking and alcohol use. After researchers adjusted the analysis to account for these factors, marijuana use was independently associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of stroke and a 10 percent increase in the risk of developing heart failure.
“Even when we corrected for known risk factors, we still found a higher rate of both stroke and heart failure in these patients, so that leads us to believe that there is something else going on besides just obesity or diet-related cardiovascular side effects,” the lead researcher said. “More research will be needed to understand the pathophysiology behind this effect.”
A lot of clinical research needs to be done in order for the medical community and Alzheimer’s Association to recommend the use of cannabis for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
As with any pharmaceutical, it’s important to understand that no drugs are, as a general rule, 100% safe. But if they can fix something, we take a calculated risk by using them. If cannabis calms down an agitated person, helps with sleep, puts a smile on one’s frozen face, it might be worth trying. If you do decide to give it to an individual with Alzheimer’s, please be cautious. Start with a very small dose in a cookie or brownie and see what the reaction is. Watch for signs of distress and nausea. And hope for some sense of calm and joy.
It helped my husband relax and appear as his old, happy self. But it certainly didn’t help his cognition.
Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Boulder Book Store, Tattered Cover Book Store, Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.