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  • Writer's pictureAaron Killion

Medical Marijuana and Dementia - 8 Things to Know

Studies into the connection between medical marijuana and dementia-related neuropsychiatric symptoms have presented some interesting results. Though cannabis hasn’t been shown to prevent, treat, or cure the disease, cannabis products may be able to alleviate some of the most distressing symptoms of dementia.

“Agitation of Alzheimer's disease” is a qualifying condition for the use of medical cannabis in Arizona and many other states. It is therefore important for caregivers of people with dementia to understand how cannabis may help to alleviate some of the behavioral symptoms associated with this condition.

Top Things to Know About Medical Marijuana and Dementia

The following are some of the most important things to know about medical marijuana and dementia.

1. Some States Include Alzheimer's Disease as a Qualifying Condition

At the time of writing, 14 states plus the District of Columbia include Alzheimer's disease as a qualifying condition for the use of medical cannabis. One of the benefits of an AZ medical marijuana card for eligible Alzheimer’s patients is access to high-quality marijuana without needing to pay the 16% excise tax that’s applied to recreational marijuana purchases.

To apply for an Arizona medical marijuana card, patients with agitation of Alzheimer’s disease need to obtain a doctor’s certification with an in-person or online MMJ appointment and pay the $150 fee ($75 for SNAP recipients). Caregivers will need to register for a caregiver’s card and pay the $200 fee in order to purchase marijuana and administer it to the MMJ patients under their care. Once obtained, patients and caregivers need to renew their AZ MMJ cards online 90 days before they expire.

2. Marijuana Can Only Be Used to Treat Agitation of Alzheimer's Disease

Medical cannabis is generally legal as a treatment for “agitation caused by Alzheimer's” rather than Alzheimer’s disease in general. Agitation in Alzheimer's manifests itself in the following ways:

  • Aggression: screaming, hitting, kicking, or biting

  • Pacing, hand-wringing, and other signs of mental distress

  • Excessive motor activity or restlessness

  • Verbal aggression

This behavior is also recognized as recurrent and must be atypical of the patient's previous character.

3. Marijuana Provides an Alternative Treatment Option

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 6.7 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's dementia, 73% of which are over age 75. The demographics of the disease have special significance when it comes to its treatment as many Alzheimer's patients require a caregiver to assist them with everyday tasks.

Maust et al. noted the tendency for caregivers to look for alternative therapies to treat dementia, giving three main reasons for a growing tendency toward MMJ:

  • Alzheimer's disease is a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes extreme distress not only for patients but also for their caregivers as the condition progresses.

  • There are limited traditional treatment options available for people with dementia.

  • One treatment option, antipsychotics, is connected with increased mortality.

Given this situation, marijuana provides an alternative that may alleviate some of the most distressing symptoms of Alzheimer’s with fewer risks than existing pharmaceutical interventions.

4. Other Types of Dementia Don’t Qualify

Alzheimer's disease is the most well-known type of dementia and accounts for around 60-70% of dementia cases. Young-onset dementia, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia are other varieties that don’t currently qualify for treatment with marijuana.

5. There Are Various Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia develop as a result of the altered connectivity and reduced volume of brain regions needed for essential functions like memory, impulse control, and learning.

Symptoms of this condition will vary depending on whether the patient has mild or severe dementia. In mild cases of dementia, the patient may struggle to remember everyday things like where they put their keys. In severe dementia, the person becomes totally dependent on a caregiver for even simple tasks.

Dementia patients may experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Confusion or memory loss

  • Speech impairment

  • Greater difficulty in understanding others or expressing themselves

  • Trouble managing their financial affairs

  • Impulsive or irrational behavior

  • Paranoia or hallucinations

  • Getting lost in familiar places

  • Increased difficulty completing essential tasks

  • Balance or movement problems

Be sure to consult your doctor if you or a loved one is suffering from any of these symptoms.

Risk Factors Associated with Dementia

Though age is the most common correlated risk factor associated with dementia, getting older is certainly not a guarantee of cognitive decline. The following factors are considered to increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Pro-inflammatory or poor diets

  • Unhealthy lifestyle factors like smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise

  • Physical factors: high blood pressure, hearing loss, diabetes

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Social isolation and depression

  • Low level of education and cognitive stimulation

6. Does Marijuana Increase Dementia Risk?

There is some concern that cannabis use could be a contributory factor in patients developing Alzheimer's disease. However, measuring the effects in practice would require large-scale, longitudinal studies. So far, two studies show interesting results:

  • A 2017 study investigated brain blood flow in people with cannabis use disorder. This study reported that the subjects typically had lower blood flow in the hippocampus, the brain region implicated in the development of Alzheimer's.

  • A 2020 study showed that a single dose of CBD increased blood flow in the hippocampus. This may indicate that high-CBD products might be preferable to high-THC products for mitigating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

To maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of cannabis consumption, it’s important to consult with an experienced MMJ doctor before taking cannabis products for Alzheimer’s. It’s also essential to keep all follow-up appointments so that the doctor can adjust the products and dose that the patient is taking, if needed.

7. Some Studies Have Shown Positive Results

Though there is a relatively small body of evidence about the connection between marijuana and dementia, some studies have yielded positive results:

  • Pautex et al. carried out clinical trials on the effect of cannabinoids on the behavioral symptoms of severe dementia. Patients received a mix of THC and CBD with a 1:2 ratio every day for up to 13 months. No adverse side effects were noted and clinical scores showed a notable improvement in symptoms.

  • Bahji et al. (2022) also investigated the impact of cannabinoids on the behavioral, psychological, and motor skills of patients with neurocognitive disorders including Alzheimer's disease. This study noted the correlation between the use of synthetic cannabinoids and relief from psychological and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. This study suggested that synthetic cannabinoids could offer a safe alternative treatment option for neurocognitive diseases in the future.

8. CBD Has Neuroprotective Properties

Cannabis cannot currently be recommended for preventing dementia. However, CBD, in particular, appears to have neuroprotective properties, i.e. it could help to protect nerve cells against degeneration.

  • In a 2019 systematic review by Kim et al., it was suggested that cannabis may be useful in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's because the components of CBD could suppress the primary causal factors of Alzheimer's. It was suggested in this report that using CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) together may be more useful than CBD or THC isolates.

  • Staton Laws et al. (2022) also claimed that the chemical compounds in cannabis, for example, its cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids, have neuroprotective properties that can protect against amyloid β. This protein forms plaques in the brain that disrupt communication between nerve cells and can lead to inflammation in the brain.

  • Dr. Tim Karl (Western Sydney School of Medicine) has investigated the link between marijuana and dementia and also claims that cannabis that’s high in CBD can offer neuroprotection, neurogenesis, and anti-inflammatory effects that can help improve brain cell survival.

Talk to an Experienced MMJ Doctor

If you are currently suffering from Alzheimer's disease or are a caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient, medical marijuana could offer an alternative treatment option for agitation caused by the disease. Treating the emotional as well as physical symptoms of this disease is a step that could improve the quality of life of the patient and their caregiver(s).

Though MMJ can be used to reduce symptoms of agitation, it's important to remember that MMJ can't be claimed to prevent, treat, or cure Alzheimer’s disease as a whole. Consult a knowledgeable doctor about how cannabis could complement other treatments that you or the patient under your care are receiving.

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