What does marijuana do for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients?

Medical marijuana from the DoctorMy 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

Conclusion

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.


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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 AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you putting yourself at risk for dementia with OTC medications and prescription drugs?

Reading Instructions from PharmacyA new study links the increased risk of dementia with certain medications. (Anticholinergic drugs and risk of dementia: case-control study) The focus of the study was on drugs that have anticholinergic effects. Acetylcholine is vital to memory and learning. There are lower levels of this neurotransmitter in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, animal studies have shown that anticholinergic drugs may contribute to brain inflammation, another risk factor for dementia.

It’s estimated that approximately 50% of adults in the U.S. take one or more medications with an anticholinergic effect. Some of the most common are:

  • amitriptyline (Endep, Elavil), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), and bupropion (Aplenzin, Wellbutin). These drugs are commonly taken for depression)
  • oxybutynin and tolterodine, taken for an overactive bladder, found in Ditropan, Oxytrol.
  • diphenhydramine, a common antihistamine found in: Advil PM, Aleve PM, Bayer PM, Benadryl, Excedrin PM, Nytol, Simply Sleep, Sominex, Tylenol PM, Unisom, etc.
  • Chlorpheniramine, found in Actifed, Allergy & Congestion RElief, Chlor-Trimeton, Codeprex, Efidac-24 Chlorpheniramine, etc.

According to Shelly Gray, professor pharmacy at the University of Washington, and author of  Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia” (March 2015, JAMA Internal Med.), the longer people took the drugs and the higher the dose, the higher the risk of dementia, although it’s important to note that short-term use was not linked to higher risks.

Gray suggested that people, especially seniors, who have trouble sleeping find a non-drug therapy for insomnia Celexa and Prozac for depression and Claritin for allergies.  She emphasized that it is important to speak with one’s doctor before stopping a medication that you have been taking.

Natural alternatives

Help for depression

  1. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.
  2. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn
  3.  I gave my husband Ginkgo biloba for depression (and also took it myself). It helped right up until he was in late stage Alzheimer’s. One word of advice, not all brands are efficacious, so pick one carefully. Also note that it takes about 6 weeks to notice an effect. This is a typical difference of taking a pharmaceutical versus a natural remedy.
  4. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  5. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  6. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.

Natural sleep aids

  1. Try valerian, passion-flower or skullcap herbal tea at least a couple of hours before bedtime.
  2. A cup of warm milk with a small pinch of cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric and cumin, and an 1/8 of a tsp of ghee is a tasty and relaxing bedtime drink. The calcium in the milk is a muscle relaxant and the Indian spices help induce relaxation. Experiment to see which spices you like.
  3. Eat a banana. Bananas contain potassium and magnesium that help reduce risk of muscle cramps. These two minerals also support heart health and cognitive function.
  4. A drop in blood sugar during the night can cause us to wake up. Although it’s better to not go to sleep on a full stomach, a small protein snack such as a slice of cheese or smear of peanut butter on a cracker can help maintain balanced blood sugar.
  5. Melatonin supplements help some people, but you might have to experiment with the dosage. I like Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm, a powdered calcium supplement that you put in water or juice. I also like the homeopathic remedy Hyland’s Calms Forte.
  6. Spritz lavender oil on your pillow or put a sachet of lavender flowers under your pillow.

Natural antihistamines

  1. Quercetin is a bioflavonoid that is naturally found in plant foods such as apples, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or cauliflower), onions/shallots, green tea and citrus fruits. It stabilizes the release of histamines and helps to naturally control allergy symptoms.
  2. Apple cider vinegar is my new “go to” remedy for almost everything. I take 1 Tablespoon everyday by pinching my nose and drinking water to flush it down. It helps alkalize the body and supports immune function.
  3. Butterbur is a natural herb that is sold as an extract. A study published in August 2005 in Phytotherapy Research found that when compared to an antihistamine, the butterbur extract worked just as well, without the side effect of drowsiness.
  4. Remember that Claritin does not contain diphenhydramine, so use it by all means if these other remedies do not do the trick.

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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 AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Can depression be a sign of dementia?

Depressed Senior Woman Sitting OutsideDepression can affect our memory, and it can result from not being able to do the things that were once easy for us, as in the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depression can result from a number of factors and it often appears differently in different people

Some people are able to hide the fact that they are terribly depressed. I did. I tried to put on a happy face during my husband’s illness, but inside I often felt as though I was dying. Following the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we have to remind ourselves that we usually don’t know what is happening inside someone else’s head.

Before my husband was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease he was withdrawn and depressed. I didn’t know what exactly what was going on, and he was unable to articulate how he felt. I eventually realized that he was depressed because the things that were once effortless for him to do, such as driving around town or figuring out how much tip to leave in a restaurant, had become difficult.

Alzheimer’s and depression often occur simultaneously, which often makes it difficult for physicians to make a diagnosis without further testing. According to James M. Ellison, MD of the Swank Memory Care Center, Christiana Care Health System, approximately half of individuals affected by Alzheimer’s disease will experience clinically significant depressive symptoms at some point.  Depression can occur during any phase of the illness.

Symptoms common to Alzheimer’s and depression

  • Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable
  • Memory issues
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Impaired concentration
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Crying, feelings of hopelessness, despair
  • Unmotivated
  • Lack of energy, lethargy, apathy
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

A case of the chicken or the egg: which came first, Alzheimer’s or depression?

Some health professionals think that depression can put one at greater risk for Alzheimer’s. There is also a belief that depression is a symptom of Alzheimer’s. In any case, physicians feel that a person with dementia who is depressed can experience a quicker cognitive decline and need to rely more on caregivers.

What to do?

8 natural ways to combat depression.

Antidepressants may not work as well with people who have Alzheimer’s and are depressed. Before resorting to antidepressants and other drugs,  try these options:

  1. Provide a safe and calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.
  2. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.
  3. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn
  4.  I gave my husband Ginkgo biloba for depression (and also took it myself). It helped right up until he was in late stage Alzheimer’s. One word of advice, not all brands are efficacious, so pick one carefully. Also note that it takes about 6 weeks to notice an effect. This is a typical difference of taking a pharmaceutical versus a natural remedy.
  5. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  6. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  7. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.
  8. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. Studies have indicated that sleep deprivation can increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

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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 AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Why you should throw away that antipsychotic drug prescribed for your loved one

Elderly woman taking a medicineAccording to Human Rights Watch in an average week, nursing facilities in the United States administer antipsychotic drugs to over 179,000 people who do not have diagnoses for which the drugs are approved. Often, these drugs are dispensed like candy, without free and informed consent. . . without a family member or someone who holds durable power of attorney for the health care resident, to make a decision based on the benefits and risks of taking the medication.

Like my late husband, most of the patients who are given these drugs have some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  My husband was in a memory care home for two years. Towards the end of his illness, he was given an antipsychotic drug because his behavior became “difficult.” He was not combative, and he was mostly non-ambulatory. Once, though, while sitting, he swung out his arm and hit a woman who was bothering him. Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know the details. But in general, he was a sweet man up until the end. He did get annoyed, however, by other residents’ behavior. And so he was given a drug to pacify him. After visiting him over a period of a few weeks and noticing the deterioration in his overall wellbeing, including his inability to hold his head up, sit upright, or staying awake most of the day, I demanded that he be taken off a number of drugs. The improvement was dramatic and astounding.

According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis, facilities often use antipsychotic drugs to control common symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These drugs are associated with clinically significant adverse effects, including death. Then why are they being prescribed to an extremely vulnerable, frail and “at risk” population? Because disruptive behaviors such as crying out “help me, help me” over a long period of time, or yelling out profanities, or exhibiting aggressive behavior can become a nuisance that caregivers –professional and family–are either not skilled in addressing or are too busy taking care of other patients to be bothered with.

What are the alternatives?

First:

  • Eliminate noise and disruption.
  • Make sure the patient does not have a urinary tract infection.
  • Evaluate physical needs. Is s/he thirsty, hungry, constipated, etc?
  • Encourage the patient to verbalize feelings and needs, if possible.
  • Limit or reduce caffeine.
  • Reduce external stimuli (loud TV or radio, etc.).
  • Dim the lighting.
  • Avoid confrontation and use a soft, sweet speaking voice.
  • Provide companionship.
  • Identify events or issues that trigger behaviors.

Once you know the patient is safe and free from pain due to an infection, create a calm and beautiful environment.

Creating a beautiful space

  • Maintain a clean environment without clutter.
  • Enjoy a vase of fresh flowers.
  • Burn incense to clear and purify the air, unless the smoke or odor is irritating.
  • Paint the walls a color that rejuvenates the spirit. For instance, green is healing and relaxing, red restores vitality in people who are depressed, and purple is powerful for those who need spiritual and emotional healing.
  • Gather gemstones. They exert healing effects. Lithium quartz is said to ease tension and stress, and keep nightmares at bay. Pink Calcite promotes compassion, healing, and universal love. Amethyst is for protection, purification, and spiritual/divine connection.
  • Listening to calming sounds can relax a tense body within minutes. Consider a wind chime, water fountain, or a CD of singing birds, ocean waves, or falling rain.]
  • Use essential oils or aromatherapy to have a specific effect on the body, mind, and spirit. (See Aromatherapy, Chapter 18 in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.”)
  • Create an outdoor sacred space with river rocks, a koi or lily pond, a flowering tree or shrub, pampas grass, colored sand—the possibilities are endless.
  • Include religious symbols, chakra symbols, animal totems, prayer flags, angel statues, rainbow banners, and lamps with colored bulbs.

Herbal remedies

  • A nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system.  Nervines are especially useful during times of stress because they have a strong relaxing and calming effect without producing a dulling, “hang-over” side effect.  They also tone and restore the nervous system to a more balanced state.  Some nervines are also anti-spasmodic, meaning they relax the peripheral nerves and the muscle tissue, which in turn has a relaxing effect on the whole system.
  • The main types of nervines are tonics, relaxants, and stimulants.
  • Nervine Tonics – are particularly helpful for strengthening the nervous system and restoring balance. In addition to having a relaxing effect, they have a vaso-dilating action on the blood vessels of the brain.  This increases oxygen availability to brain cells and helps with mental agility and mood.
  • Nervine Relaxants – are especially beneficial for short-term use, for example in treating mild depression or acute anxiety. “This group of nervines are most important in times of stress and confusion, alleviating many of the accompanying symptoms. They should always be used in a broad holistic way, not simply to tranquillize.  Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weigh heavily on the whole nervous system,” says renown herbalist David Hoffman.
  • Nervine Stimulants– are used as a restorative “pick-me-up” when you need an energetic boost without that revved up feeling produced by caffeine.
  • Recommended nervines:
  • Passion flower- helps soothe anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and helps alleviate anger and lower blood pressure.
  • Skullcap – is antispasmodic and relaxing and is recommended to relieve headaches, mood swings, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and nervous tension and exhaustion.
  • The next time your loved one is  feeling nervous, agitated, restless or hyped up, try calming him/her with a nervine herb or aromatherapy. If your loved one is on medication, please check with the physician to make sure the drugs do not interact with the nervine herbs.

Other ways to help a person with dementia relax and feel calm without the use of antipsychotic drugs.

  • Aromatherapy
  • Music
  • Pet therapy
  • Horticulture therapy
  • Color therapy

For detailed information on all of the above, read  “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia”

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