Communities Turn to Marijuana to Treat Memory Care Residents

In some parts of the country, senior living communities are turning to cannabis to treat residents with Alzheimer’s—and, noticing the benefits the drug brings to patients, more communities are looking to jump on the bandwagon.

For instance, in Sonoma County, California, some assisted living communities are treating patients who have Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia with medical marijuana, The Press-Democrat reports.

The marijuana—administered with consent from those legally responsible for the patients and often administered in the form of edibles or tinctures—can help caregivers with behavioral management, as it can subdue patients’ agitation and aggression when they no longer fully understand what’s going on around them, according to the article.

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The use of marijuana for behavior management is “well known and very popular” in memory care communities, Dan O’Brien, who works at a Sonoma County assisted living community, told The Press-Democrat.

People who have dementia may react violently toward their caregivers who come to bathe and dress them, for instance, O’Brien said.

“They may not understand these people who have their hands all over them are helping them,” he explained. Instead, the patients feel as though they are being attacked.

Currently, no pharmaceuticals are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat “complicated dementia,” and antipsychotics have an official “black box warning” that they bring an “increased risk of death” when used to treat the neuropsychiatric symptoms of dementia, Phillip Grob, a geriatric psychiatrist in Santa Rosa, California, told The Press-Democrat.

When he prescribes marijuana to a patient who has dementia, Grob prefers to “start low and go slow” with the dosage.

“In my book, cannabis is much safer than [antipsychotic] prescription medications,” Grob said.
 
Some California senior living communities that have yet to adopt the practice are seriously considering it. Healdsburg Senior Living Community, for instance, is “definitely exploring the idea” of using medical marijuana as an alternative to psychotropic medication, Tony Fisher, the community’s marketing director, told The Press-Democrat.

At the same time, it’s critical to introduce the idea carefully, because marijuana “is not a very popular subject in the senior world,” Fisher said.

Still, senior living communities that rely on Medicare funding are hesitant to administer medical marijuana because it isn’t legal under federal law, which classifies cannabis as a drug “with no currently accepted medical use,” The Press-Democrat reported. 

Scientific evidence

Hesitation aside, recent research supports the use of cannabis to treat Alzheimer’s patients. 

Specifically, researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, have discovered preliminary evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and additional compounds present in marijuana can promote the cellular removal of amyloid beta, a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers’ findings were published in the June 2016 edition of Aging and Mechanisms of Disease.

“Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells,” Salk professor David Schubert, the senior author of the research paper, said in a prepared statement.

High levels of amyloid beta were linked to cellular inflammation and increased rates of neuron death, the researchers found. Exposing the cells to THC decreased amyloid beta protein levels and eliminated the inflammatory response from the nerve cells caused by the protein, therefore permitting the nerve cells to survive, the researchers discovered.

“Inflammation within the brain is a major component of the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it has always been assumed that this response was coming from immune-like cells in the brain, not the nerve cells themselves,” Antonio Currais, a postdoctoral researcher in Schubert’s laboratory and first author of the paper, said in a statement. “When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”

The research was conducted in exploratory laboratory models, and the use of THC-like compounds as an Alzheimer’s therapy has to be tested in clinical trials, Schubert stressed in a statement.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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