BGU research: Medical cannabis highly effective in elderly patients

A new study found that the therapeutic use of marijuana is safe and efficacious for elderly patients who need relief from chronic pain

Marijuana plants (photo credit: REUTERS)
Marijuana plants
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Medical cannabis therapies can significantly cut chronic pain in patients over 65 years of age without adverse effects, according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Cannabis Clinical Research Institute at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba.
A new study, published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine, found that the therapeutic use of marijuana is safe and efficacious for elderly patients who need relief from chronic pain due to cancer, Parkinson’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other disorders.
“While older patients represent a large and growing population of medical cannabis users, few studies have addressed how it affects this particular group, which also suffers from dementia, frequent falls, mobility problems, and hearing and visual impairments,” said internal medicine Prof. Victor Novack of BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences and head of the Soroka Clinical Research Center.
“After monitoring patients 65 and older for six months, we found medical cannabis treatment significantly relieves pain and improves quality of life for seniors with minimal side effects reported,” he said.
This older population represents a growing segment of medical cannabis users, ranging from approximately 7% to more than 33%, depending on the country. Recent polls indicate Americans over 65 represent 14% of the total population and use more than 30% of all prescription drugs, including highly addictive painkillers called opioids.
A growing number of Israeli patients are being licensed by the Health Ministry to receive medical cannabis. While Prime Minister and acting Health Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through a cabinet decision to export billions of shekels’ worth of medical cannabis, he backtracked after the Trump Administration objected. Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman also backtracked this week, after approving the drug’s export, saying he now opposed it because “it is a drug like any drug.”
BGU researchers surveyed 2,736 patients 65 years and older who received medical cannabis through Tikun Olam, the largest Israeli medical cannabis supplier. More than 60% were prescribed medical cannabis to treat pain, particularly pain associated with cancer.
After six months of treatment, more than 93% of the 901 respondents reported their pain dropped from a median of eight to a median of four on a 10-point scale. Close to 60% of patients who originally reported “bad” or “very bad” quality of life upgraded to “good” or “very good” after six months. More than 70% of patients surveyed reported moderate to significant improvement in their condition.
The most commonly reported side effects were dizziness (9.7%) and dry mouth (7.1%). After six months, more than 18% of patients surveyed had stopped using opioid analgesics or had reduced their dosage.
All patients received a prescription after consulting with a doctor who prescribed treatment. More than 33% of patients used cannabis-infused oil, 24% smoked the cannabis, and 6% used vaporization.
While the findings to date indicate cannabis may decrease dependence on prescription medicines, including opioids, more evidence-based data from this aging population is urgently needed, said the group of researchers, which included Ran Abuhasira, a BGU PhD candidate working in the Soroka center, Lihi Bar-Lev Schleider of Tikun Olam, and veteran Hebrew University cannabis researcher Prof. Raphael Mechoulam.