No effects from cannabis on brain health in older people – Israeli, Canadian studies

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Demographic data shows rising cannabis use among older people. What is the likely effect on cognitive function and brain health in this group? Two studies published this month, from Israel and Canada, shows no cause for alarm – people consuming medical cannabis showed no differences in cognitive performance compared to non-users of cannabis.

Published in the journal Drug & Alcohol Review, the study conducted in Haifa in Israel assessed the cognitive capabilities of 63 long-term medical cannabis consumers versus 62 non-using controls, writes Angela Dowden in an article for Labroots on 25 September 2020.

It compared the cognitive performances of older people consuming cannabis for chronic pain and non-users of cannabis, also with chronic pain.

The study authors are Sharon R Sznitman of the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa, Simon Vulfsons of the Institute for Pain Medicine at the Rambam Health Care Campus, and David Meiri and Galit Weinstein of the faculties of Medicine and of Biology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Medical cannabis is available on prescription in Israel, but the patient must hold a license allowing them to receive it. In many other countries, there are no or easing regulations around the use of medicinal cannabis, which is soaring in popularity as a treatment.

The Haifa study

Participants, averaging 61 years, were set a battery of cognitive tests by the investigators , who assessed participants’ memory recall, reaction time and ability to learn new information, among other parameters.

Their results found no significant differences in cognitive performance between those using medicinal cannabis and those not using it. In addition, the researchers found “no significant associations of various aspects of medicinal cannabis use patterns, including [tetrahydrocannabinol-cannabidiol] concentration, frequency and length of use, dosage and length of abstinence with cognitive performance were detected.”

Moreover, the researchers added, both groups of patients with chronic pain – those who used cannabis and those who did not – performed similarly to a standardised population with no chronic pain.

Another study, similar results

The results appeared in the same month as another study, from McGill University in Canada, that also seems to show no harm of cannabis to brain health. That research was published in the Canadian Geriatrics Journal.

This review concluded: “Low-dose, short-term medical cannabis does not carry significant risk of serious mental health and cognitive adverse effects in older adults without prior psychiatric history.”

See the abstracts of both studies below.

 

Medical cannabis and cognitive performance in middle to old adults treated for chronic pain

Drug and Alcohol Review. Published on 22 September 2020

Authors

Sharon R Sznitman, Simon Vulfsons, David Meiri and Galit Weinstein

The authors are affiliated, respectively, with the following institutions in Haifa in Israel: School of Public Health at the University of Haifa; Institute for Pain Medicine at the Rambam Health Care Campus; Faculty of Medicine at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology; and the Faculty of Biology at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Abstract

Introduction and aims: Cannabis exposure is becoming more common in older age but little is known about how it is associated with brain health in this population. This study assesses the relationship between long-term medical cannabis (MC) use and cognitive function in a sample of middle-aged and old chronic pain patients.

Design and methods

A cross-sectional study was conducted among chronic pain patients aged 50+ years who had MC licenses (n = 63) and a comparison group who did not have MC licenses (n = 62). CogState computerised brief battery was used to assess cognitive performance of psychomotor reaction, attention, working memory and new learning. Regression models and Bayesian t-tests examined differences in cognitive performance in the two groups. Furthermore, the associations between MC use patterns (dosage, cannabinoid concentrations, length and frequency of use and hours since last use) with cognition were assessed among MC licensed patients.

Results

Mean age was 63 ± 6 and 60 ± 5 years in the non-exposed and MC patients, respectively. Groups did not significantly differ in terms of cognitive performance measures. Furthermore, none of the MC use patterns were associated with cognitive performance.

Discussion and conclusions

These results suggest that use of whole plant MC does not have a widespread impact on cognition in older chronic pain patients. Considering the increasing use of MC in older populations, this study could be a first step towards a better risk-benefit assessment of MC treatment in this population.

Future studies are urgently needed to further clarify the implications of late-life cannabis use for brain health.

 

Mental Health and Cognition in Older Cannabis Users: a Review

Canadian Geriatrics Journal. Published on 23 September 2020

Authors

Blanca E Vacaflor, Olivier Beauchet, G Eric Jarvis, Allessandra Schavietto and Soham Rej

Author affiliations: Vacaflor, Schavietto and Rej are with the Geri-PARTy Research Group in the Department of Psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University in Montreal. Beauchet is in the Department of Medicine at Sir Mortimer B Davis-Jewish General Hospital and Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at McGill University. And Jarvis is in the Department of Psychiatry at the Jewish General Hospital, McGill University.

Abstract

The impact of cannabis use on mental health and cognition in older adults remains unclear.

With the recent legalisation of cannabis in Canada, physicians will need up-to-date information about the mental and cognitive effects of cannabis use in this specific population.

Method

A narrative review was conducted to summarise the literature on mental health and cognitive effects of cannabis use in older adults using Medline (OvidSP).

Results

A total of 16 studies were identified, including nine cross-sectional studies on mental health comorbidities reported by older cannabis users.

The self-reported prevalence of mental and substance use disorders is approximately two to three times higher in older adults who report past-year cannabis use, compared to older adults who report using more than one year ago or never using.

The remaining seven clinical trials found that short-term, low-dose medical cannabis was generally well-tolerated in older adults without prior serious mental illness. However, mental/cognitive adverse effects were not systematically assessed.

Conclusion

Although preliminary findings suggests that low-dose, short-term medical cannabis does not carry significant risk of serious mental health and cognitive adverse effects in older adults without prior psychiatric history, epidemiological studies find a correlation between past-year cannabis use and poor mental health outcomes in community-dwelling older adults.

These findings may indicate that longer term cannabis use in this population is detrimental to their mental health, although a direct causal link has not been established. Larger, longitudinal studies on the safety of medical cannabis in older adults are needed.

 

Does Cannabis Affect Brain Health in Older People?

 

Medical cannabis and cognitive performance in middle to old adults treated for chronic pain

 

Mental Health and Cognition in Older Cannabis Users: a Review

 


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