Maine resident Dair Gillespie, 77 suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. She spends her days in bed, unable to get up for simple tasks and only able to utter a few words once in awhile. Her care is overseen at home by Ann Leffler, the partner she’s known since 1970. In addition to the memory loss and confusion that Alzheimer’s causes, Gillespie experienced anxiety, hallucinations, aggression, insomnia and incontinence. The effects of a previous stroke and a broken hip still linger and contribute to her suffering.
Three years ago, after Gillespie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she experienced what can be referred to as vascular dementia, a series of mini-strokes that can occur in Alzheimer’s patients as well as patients with non-specific dementia. Leffler believes the medication given to Gillespie may have contributed to her deteriorating health. “Dair was taking all the usual, very heavy-duty drugs for Alzheimer’s, and she was taking other drugs for the side effects of those drugs,” said Leffler. “She was starting to have psychotic meltdowns. Things were getting very difficult.”
About a year ago, Leffler tried a cannabis regimen after consulting a hospice nurse. Today, she is off almost all of the Alzheimer’s medication and simply administers cannabis and over the counter pain medication to Gillespie.
“On cannabis, she’s very, very different,” Leffler said. “She is much less anxious, much less fearful. She’s much more ‘there’ — she’ll laugh, she’ll smile, sometimes she’ll say a word or two that can be understood.”
Dair Gillespie, 77, at her home in Orono, where she is being cared by her spouse. (Gabor Degre | BDN photo)
Gillespie is one of a few patients in Maine who is using cannabis to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. 30 states have medical marijuana programs, and each one varies in terms of qualifying conditions, potency of products, cost and availability. While there is very little research into the effectiveness of cannabis on Alzheimer’s, cannabis can treat many of the symptoms that accompany the disease, like anxiety and pain. Even though medical marijuana has improved Gillespie’s life far more than prescription drugs, it is still illegal and therefore not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, and no insurance program will cover the cost.
Doctors who oversee patients at the end of their lives are beginning to prioritize quality of life rather than waiting for definitive medical marijuana research.
“Comfort becomes more important than function,” said Dr. Clifford Singer, a geriatric psychiatrist in Bangor. “I think that at that stage you try everything to help stop the suffering.”
Dr. James Van Kirk is the Director of Supportive Care at Eastern Maine Medical Center, and is president of the board of the Maine Hospice Council. He said that many physicians are simply referring patients interested in medical marijuana to others who can recommend it, and he believes it’s already being used in hospice environments. “I’ve been recommending it ever since it became medically available,” he said. But patients are still hesitant to try a cannabis treatment, especially older patients who have been raised under a cloud of anti-marijuana propaganda.
Gillespie’s experience may contribute current research being done in Maine. The University of New England is working with The Wellness Connection, a group of four medical marijuana dispensaries, to study how cannabis affects chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s. Leffler has already connected with the university and looks forward to sharing her experience. Gillespie and Leffler met at the University of California at Berkeley as sociology students in the graduate program, so Gillespie knows the importance of solid, peer-reviewed research and knows that her partner would feel the same.
“If she were cognizant, she would be very proud to share her story,” Leffler said.
Alzheimer disease (also known as Alzheimer’s disease or simply Alzheimers) was discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who diagnosed it following an autopsy on the brain of a person who died of an unknown mental illness.
Alzheimer’s actually begins damaging the brain up to a decade prior to the onset of any form of short-term memory loss. It is this memory loss that is the infamous first symptom of the disease.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and plagues about five million Americans. It is a progressive neurodegenerative brain disorder and the most common form of dementia. In fact, it is estimated that Alzheimer disease causes 60 to 70 percent of all cases of dementia. One in three senior citizens will eventually die from this disease or another form of dementia.
2016 Israeli Study
While previous research has already revealed the benefits of cannabis in the treatment of neurological disorders, including Alzheimers and Parkinson’s, a new study confirms previous findings.
In a study published in January 2016, a team from Israel comprised of medical researchers from Tel-Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University, added medical cannabis oil to the treatment regimens of a small group of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. Researches administered the medical cannabis oil to deliver THC to study participants. The objective of the study was to measure the efficacy and safety of cannabis oil as a supplement to traditional pharmacotherapy for the relief of “behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.”
Concluded the study:
“Adding medical cannabis oil to Alzheimer’s disease patients’ pharmacotherapy is safe and a promising treatment option.”
This study was conducted to further explore the previously proven background that “Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).”
Cannabis has also been proven to provide relief from several other symptoms of aging experienced by seniors, including arthritis, chronic pain and loss of appetite. While initial studies are promising, the neuroprotective qualities of the plant should be explored further.
Until such research is permitted in the United States and Congress is willing to remove cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, similar studies will be lacking in the States. As long as cannabis is legally considered as dangerous and addictive as heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, patients, caretakers, and physicians will lack the knowledge to apply the best strains of cannabis to a variety of diseases and conditions. Similarly, American cannabis breeders and cultivators will be left to rely upon anecdotal patient testimonies and research conducted outside the borders of the U.S.
Studies have shown that the cannabinoids found in marijuana play beneficial roles in the treatment of many debilitating medical conditions affecting the human brain. For example, a recently published study confirmed previous indications that cannabinoids help to shrink aggressive brain tumors. Another recent study linked cannabis use with increased chances of surviving a brain injury. Now, another study has confirmed that cannabis may also play a role in the treatment of the degenerative brain disease known as Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer disease, a form of dementia that most commonly strikes people aged 65 and older, is a bit of a medical mystery. Although there is no reason known to cause the onset, nor to cure it, a study from a team in South Florida, lead by neuroscientist Chuanhai Cao, PhD, found that low levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, may “slow or even halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease earlier this year, was titled “The Potential Therapeutic Effects of THC on Alzheimer’s Disease.” The study summary stated, “These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer’s disease through multiple functions and pathways.”
There are many hypotheses about what causes the progression of the condition. The most commonly accepted, lists plaques and tangles in the brain as the culprits causing the degeneration and death of brain cells, which results in such symptoms as memory loss. The Alzheimer’s Association defines plaques as, “deposits of a protein fragment, called beta-amyloid, that build up in the spaces between nerve cells.” Tangles are defined as, “twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside cells.” It is normal for plaques and tangles to develop in an aging brain, but the development significantly increases, for a reason unknown, in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.
In this particular study, the cells tested were outside the body in an artificial cultural medium, using a method known as in vitro. The small amount of THC that was introduced to these cells was able to reduce the the build up of beta-amyloid and clear debris in the cells. If THC is able to reduce the build up of plaques, which stimulate the disease in the brain, it will likely be able to prevent or slow the progression of the disease when introduced inside the human body. The study also found that the introduction of THC increased the function of specialized subunits within cells known as mitochondria. Mitochondria play important roles in the life-cycle, growth, and death of cells. This demonstrates the potential that THC may have to reduce or possibly prevent the degeneration and death of the brain cells in the first place.
Lead author, Cao told USF Health, “THC is known to be a potent antioxidant with neuroprotective properties, but this is the first report that the compound directly affects Alzheimer’s pathology by decreasing amyloid beta levels, inhibiting its aggregation, and enhancing mitochondrial function.” He added, “Decreased levels of amyloid beta means less aggregation, which may protect against the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Since THC is a natural and relatively safe amyloid inhibitor, THC or its analogs may help us develop an effective treatment in the future.”
When asked about the study, authors confirmed that potential benefits of using THC to treat Alzheimer’s far outweigh the risks, as no toxicity was observed. Although THC is associated with memory impairment, such a minimal quantity used for this study is no worse for a patient than the leading pharmaceuticals most commonly used to treat this disease.
More research must be done on this subject to confirm the findings with one-hundred percent confidence, but this study is a positive indication that the use of cannabis to treat degenerative brain diseases should be explored.
photo credit: Rocky Mountain Oils
As America’s Baby Boomer generation heads into their golden years, healthcare is becoming one of the most pressing issues of our times. Both Medicare and Social Security face significant challenges in the coming years. Medicare’s hospital trust will be exhausted by 2026 and Social Security is not far behind, predicted to run out by 2033. It remains to be seen what impact Obamacare can have on the healthcare system, but most Americans understand that there are still significant hurdles in the future.
As the ever-growing senior population continues to climb, these individuals often rely on overprescribed pharmaceuticals (namely opiates) to help them through their later years. The number of opiate prescriptions in the United States skyrocketed to 207 million in 2013, with 55 million of those going to seniors aged 65 and older. Though pain relief is critical in the care of our elderly, these prescriptions have proven to be the among the most dangerous for society. The risk vs. reward analysis continues to show us that cannabis is a viable alternative to prescription opiates.
With 23 states now allowing medical marijuana, seniors are increasingly realizing the efficacy of marijuana for the treatment of pain, nausea, inflammation and dozens of other symptoms. While traction at the federal level is moving slowly, the cannabis industry is extending open arms to elders with senior outreach programs and educational efforts.
Whether you’re entering the golden years yourself or your parents or grandparents are getting older, it’s imperative to know every option available to preserve health and comfort. Here is a list of 4 ways cannabis can help common conditions as we age:
Last year Arthritis Today published an article discussing the efficacy of cannabis in the treatment of arthritis. Though some doctors remain skeptical, the bottom line for those suffering from arthritis is finding the medicine that works.
Dr. Fitzcharles, associate professor of medicine in the department of rheumatology and pain management unit at McGill University in Montreal said, “There’s no question that cannabinoids have the potential to have an impact on the disease.” The risk vs. reward may be still in limbo for some, but those who benefit from the plant would likely tell you there is no argument to be had.
Chronic pain comes in many forms, is caused by an endless list of medical conditions, and affects each individual differently. Marijuana may not work for every type of chronic pain, but has proven extremely effective in treating pain associated with multiple sclerosis or nerve injuries.
When compared to opiates in the treatment of pain, it’s becoming ever-more clear that marijuana is the safer option. Between the years of 1999 and 2010, states that had medical marijuana programs in place showed 25% decrease in the number of deaths caused by prescription pain killers. As the evidence in favor of medical marijuana mounts, more people are likely to use cannabis as an alternative to opiates.
Memory & Brain Function
A decline in cognitive function may be one of the most painful and saddening conditions that can afflict the elderly. Recent studies have indicated that there may be promise in the use of cannabis to preserve memory and brain function.
In a 2006 study by Dr. Kim Janda, his team’s research showed that cannabis may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease. In fact, when compared to popular alzeimer’s drugs like Aricept and Cognex, the use of THC marginally outperformed both pharmaceuticals. There is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and research has proven to be difficult. With limited options available, further research is needed to say whether cannabis can be the magic bullet for the disease.
Everyone knows that marijuana use stimulates the appetite, but not so many realize how valuable that can be in a medical context. For anyone unfamiliar with the effects of dialysis or chemotherapy, these treatments cause debilitating nausea and subsequent loss of appetite.
A recent study has validated what we already know about marijuana use, it effects our endocannabinoid system, heightening our sense of smell and taste. These effects are invaluable to those undergoing intense cancer treatments and dialysis, spurring appetite and easing nausea.
Photo Credit: Mini B.