By Pat Anson, Editor
Marijuana use by middle-aged and older adults in the U.S. has grown significantly over the past decade, in part because more baby boomers are seeking relief from neuropathy and other painful conditions associated with aging.
In a survey of over 17,600 adults aged 50 and older, researchers found that 9 percent of adults aged 50-64 reported marijuana use in the past year, double the percentage that used it a decade earlier. Nearly 3 percent of adults 65 and older also reported marijuana use, seven times the number that used it a decade ago.
The 2015-2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health asked respondents about their marijuana use, including when they first used it and whether they used it in the past year. The researchers also looked at several health issues, including substance use and chronic disease.
"Marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating certain conditions that affect older adults, including neuropathic pain and nausea,” said lead author Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, a professor of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care at NYU School of Medicine.
“However, certain older adults may be at heightened risk for adverse effects associated with marijuana use, particularly if they have certain underlying chronic diseases or are also engaged in unhealthy substance use.”
Han and his colleagues say adults who used marijuana were more likely to also report alcohol use disorder, nicotine dependence, cocaine use, and misuse of prescription medications (including opioids and sedatives) than non-users.
The new findings, published online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, builds on an earlier study by the same researchers that found a significant increase in cannabis use among adults over 50.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana and a handful of states allow its recreational use. Although today's marijuana users are more likely to be young adults, the baby boomer generation is unique, having more experience with recreational use of drugs than previous generations. Many baby boomers first tried marijuana when they were 21 or younger.
“The baby boomer generation grew up during a period of significant cultural change, including a surge in popularity of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s. We're now in a new era of changing attitudes around marijuana, and as stigma declines and access improves, it appears that baby boomers -- many of whom have prior experience smoking marijuana -- are increasingly using it," said Han.
Many older adults who used marijuana in the past year (15% of users aged 50-64 and nearly 23% of those 65 and older) reported that a doctor had recommended it to them.
A recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that most older Americans think marijuana is effective for pain relief, anxiety and nausea and should be available to patients with a doctor’s recommendation.