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Is Medical Marijuana Right For Dementia Patients?

Medical marijuana is all the rage these days.  You’ve undoubtedly seen claims about how it can help with pain, sleep, chronic diseases and much more.  Now there is discussion it might improve some dementia symptoms. Danielle Goldfarb, MD, a neurologist and psychologist at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, says the limited studies on medical marijuana’s effects on dementia show some promise.

“There is not much research yet, but what we do have suggests that marijuana can have a calming effect on some of the behavioral symptoms of dementia,” says Dr. Goldfarb. “The synthetic form, Nabilone, also showed positive results in one recent study.”

Just a few studies

Scientists in the field of Alzheimer’s and dementia are just now beginning to study the use of marijuana to treat behavioral problems associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The small number of studies have examined the effect of certain active components of the natural marijuana plant and a synthetic form on such behaviors as aggression and agitation. There are no valid studies demonstrating cognitive benefit of medical marijuana in dementia.

“Many studies have had a small number of participants which makes it difficult to draw conclusions,” continues Dr. Goldfarb. “In addition, marijuana is difficult to get for high quality research.”  Until recently all marijuana for federally approved studies had to come from a single lab. In August, the Drug Enforcement Association pledged to expand the number of labs certified to grow marijuana for medical studies. This will give scientists better access to quality plants for future research.

Much more research is necessary, cautions Dr. Goldfarb. Marijuana consists of about 400 compounds, called cannabinoids, including those most people are familiar with:  THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol.)  Different strains of marijuana contain different proportions of CBD and THC. This makes it difficult to study scientifically since studies do not all use the same exact strain.

Should you try it?

If you are considering medical marijuana to manage the symptoms of dementia, consult a doctor first. A physician can help you decide if medical marijuana is a good option for you or your loved one. They may also be able to help you navigate the many strains and dosage options now available.

It’s also important to understand the medical marijuana law in your state. Some states, including Arizona, list agitation related to Alzheimer’s disease as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. Some states, on the other hand, only approve it for use with Alzheimer’s but not for other conditions that may cause dementia.

“The bottom line is while certain forms of medical marijuana have been shown to reduce agitation and aggression for some people with dementia, we need more research to better understand the benefits and side effects,” concludes Dr. Goldfarb. “People who want to try it should work with a medical professional to help them chose the right strain and dose.”

For more information on Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit: banneralz.org

Alzheimers Disease and Dementia