Medical Cannabis Risky for Older Patients with COPD
Aneesh Nair | Published September 30, 2020 07:13:27 AM | Health

Medical Cannabis Risky for Older Patients with COPD

While many senior citizens are discovering the benefits of medical cannabis in relieving pain and other health problems, a large new study suggests caution is warranted for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto say older adults with COPD who take prescription drugs made with synthetic cannabinoids were 64% more likely to die. The odds are even worse for elderly patients with COPD who take high-dose cannabinoids for the first time. New users had a 178% higher risk of being hospitalized for COPD or pneumonia and a 231% increased risk of death.

"Cannabinoid drugs are being increasingly used by older adults with COPD, so it is important for patients and physicians to have a clear understanding of the side-effect profile of these drugs," says lead author Nicholas Vozoris, MD, a respiratory specialist at St. Michael's and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"Our study results do not mean that cannabinoid drugs should be never used among older adults with COPD. Rather, our findings should be incorporated by patients and physicians into prescribing decision-making. Our results also highlight the importance of favouring lower over higher cannabinoid doses, when these drugs actually do need to be used."

The study analyzed the health data of over 4,000 older adults diagnosed with COPD who took either nabilone or dronabinol, two medications made with synthetic cannabinoids that are used to treat nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite.

The findings, published in the journal Thorax, suggest that nabilone and dronabinol may cause sedation and suppress breathing in patients whose health is already compromised by COPD, a progressive lung disease that causes difficulty breathing and chronic coughing.

"Older adults with COPD represent a group that would likely be more susceptible to cannabinoid-related respiratory side-effects, since older adults less efficiently break down drugs and hence, drug effects can linger in the body for longer,” said Vozoris.

“Cannabinoids may not be any safer to use among older adults with COPD than opioids, which are also associated with a heightened risk of respiratory- related morbidity and mortality. While further research is needed to confirm the safety profile of cannabinoid drugs among older adults with COPD, our findings should be taken into consideration in prescribing decision making in this population.”

Cannabis and Menopause

While high doses of cannabinoids may not be appropriate for older patients with COPD, many middle-aged women are using cannabis to treat symptoms of menopause.

According to a small study being presented at the annual meeting of The North American Menopause Society, over one in four women have either used or are currently using cannabis to manage menopause symptoms.

The study involved 232 female military veterans (average age of 56) living in Northern California. Over half reported hot flashes and night sweats regularly. Twenty-seven percent said they had used marijuana to help battle menopause symptoms, while another 10% said they were interested in trying cannabis.

“While the therapeutic use of cannabis by veterans is not altogether uncommon, this study is among the first to highlight veterans’ use of marijuana for this particular condition. Given cannabis’ relatively high rate of use among the women in this cohort, scientists and others would be well-advised to further explore its safety, efficacy, and prevalence among women experiencing menopause,” said Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.

A 2018 survey of over 2,700 elderly patients in Israel found that medical marijuana significantly reduced their chronic pain without adverse effects. Nearly one in five patients stopped using opioid medication or reduced their dose.

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