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Study Shows Rise in Weed-Related Emergency Room Visits Among Older Adults

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine have revealed that cannabis use among seniors has led to a significant increase in hospital visits. This peer-reviewed study was published Monday. Journal of the American Geriatrics SocietyThe study revealed that there has been a 1,808% rise in the number of marijuana-related emergency room visits among California adults 65+ between 2005 to 2019.

Benjamin Han, M.D., lead author of the study and a geriatrician with the Division of Geriatrics, Gerontology and Palliative Care at UC San Diego School of Medicine, stated that there has been a dramatic rise in hospital visits due to marijuana consumption by older adults. This is a worry for many of his fellow doctors. Interview with UC San Diego Today: Han stated that this is because older patients are at greater risk for adverse effects related to cannabis or other psychoactive substances.

“Many patients assume they aren’t going to have adverse side effects from cannabis because they often don’t view it as seriously as they would a prescription drug,” said Han. “I do see a lot of older adults who are overly confident, saying they know how to handle it — yet as they have gotten older, their bodies are more sensitive, and the concentrations are very different from what they may have tried when they were younger.” 

This study was partially funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It was based on a trend analysis of data from California Department of Healthcare Access and Information. Researchers found that cannabis-related emergencies department visits in California for adults 65 years and older increased from 366 to 12,167 between 2005 and 2019. Medical marijuana was legalized in California in 1996, and regulated sales of adult-use cannabis began in the state on January 1, 2018, following the legalization of recreational marijuana by the state’s voters in 2016. It was found that emergency room visits rose sharply in the period 2013-2017, but they have remained steady since then.

As a result of legalization, cannabis use is on the rise among seniors.

The number of older adults who have smoked cannabis has increased dramatically over the past 20 years as legalization initiatives in the United States gained ground. There is a decrease in perceived risks associated with regular marijuana use among older Americans. This has led to an increase in cannabis consumption by these people socially and for many other health reasons.

According to the researchers, this study shows that older people can use cannabis for unintended reasons. This could lead to emergency medical care. Use of cannabis may slow down reaction times or impair focus, increasing the chance of injuries or falling. Evidence also suggests that marijuana may increase your risk of paranoia and delirium. Additionally, prescription drugs can be interacted with cannabis to worsen pulmonary or cardiac problems.

“We know from work in alcohol that older adults are more likely to make a change in substance use if they see that it is linked to an undesirable medical symptom or outcome — so linking cannabis use similarly could help with behavioral change,” said Alison Moore, M.D., co-author of the study and chief of the Division of Geriatrics, Gerontology, and Palliative Care in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “We truly have much to learn about cannabis, given all the new forms of it and combinations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol), and this will inform our understanding of risks and possible benefits, too.”

This study shows that older Americans need to openly discuss their cannabis use with their doctors. Moore believes that this conversation should be part of routine medical treatment, and screening protocols can often include marijuana use in conjunction with illegal drugs.

“Instead, asking a question like, ‘Have you used cannabis — also known as marijuana — for any reason in the last 12 months?’ would encourage older adults to answer more frankly,” Moore said. “Providers can then ask how frequently cannabis is used, for what purpose — such as medically for pain, sleep, or anxiety or recreationally to relax — in what form (smoked, eaten, applied topically) and if they know how much THC and CBD it contains. Once the provider has this type of information, they can then educate the patient about potential risks of use.”

Han agreed with Han that patients should talk to their doctors about cannabis before they use it medicinally.

“Although cannabis may be helpful for some chronic symptoms, it is important to weigh that potential benefit with the risk, including ending up in an emergency department,” he said.