Cannabis still faces a lot of flack over its effect on young, developing brains. But, how does it affect us as we age? A wealth of evidence suggests that cannabinoids are crucial to the aging process. Though clinical trials in humans are sorely lacking thanks to our current political climate, the available research hints that the herb may protect against age-related damage. That’s right, cannabis gets better with age. Here’s what you need to know about cannabis and the aging brain.
Cannabinoids and the aging brain
Inside our bodies lies a massive communication network called the endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS helps coordinate in the interaction between various bodily systems, like the immune system and the central nervous system.
A variety of cell receptors and corresponding molecules make up the endocannabinoid system. These cell sites are called cannabinoid receptors, and the chemicals that bind to them are called endocannabinoids.
Our bodies make endocannabinoids naturally, but plants and animals make them as well. Cannabis, for example, is covered with phytocannabinoids. Phytocannabinoids plant-based version of the compounds our own bodies make. These plant compounds fit into the cannabinoid receptors in our bodies just like our natural endocannabinoids do.
Over the past decade, the literature on cannabinoids and the aging brain has grown significantly. Recently, scientists have found that mice without endocannabinoid receptors show signs of accelerated aging.
Additional research has shown that cannabinoid receptors are more abundant in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. This hints that there is something a little off with endocannabinoid metabolism.
Further, yet another rodent study has found that the creation and metabolism of certain endocannabinoids changes as the brain ages. The endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in everything from memory, cognition, pleasure, and appetite to sleep and immune response. So, alterations in the ECS as we age can have big repercussions. Here’s why.
What do cannabinoids do in the brain?
Inside your brain, the endocannabinoid system is orchestrating several extremely important functions. They are protecting your brain cells from damage, assisting in energy generation, and even helping new brain cells grow.
A review published in 2012 looked over some of the main ways cannabinoids engage with brain cells. Their findings suggest that cannabis may slow down brain aging.
The paper reviled that in vitro (outside the body) trials and in animal models, cannabinoids:
- Improve mitochondrial function (mitochondria are cell-organs that produce energy for your body to use)
- Act as antioxidants
- Decrease inflammation in the brain
- Improve the clearance of toxins and waste products
- Help maintain the health of brain cells
- Help new brain cells grow
Basically, cannabinoids are maintenance workers. These maintenance workers seem to slow down decline caused by aging. Cannabinoids help keep your brain sharp, build and repair new cells, and clean out the excess gunk.
As we get older, our brains and bodies begin to show signs of all of the wear and tear caused by our diet, lifestyles, and our environment. In fact, many patients with neurodegenerative brain diseases have an excess buildup of certain neurotoxins, which cause brain cells to die.
Enter cannabis. The herb is a natural source of cannabinoids, which we know are altered in animal models of aging. Anecdotal, observational, and cell-line studies have shown that compounds in cannabis can:
- Speed up the repair of brain cells after stroke or traumatic injury
- Ease symptoms of neurological disorders (more below)
- Improve quality of life in aging adults
Cannabis is neuroprotective
Aside from the fact that cannabinoids encourage the growth of new brain cells, there are a couple of key reasons why cannabis is a potent neuroprotective. The first is thanks to the herb’s anti-inflammatory nature. The second is its antioxidant potential.
These two factors alone can drastically reduce the impact of the age-associated buildup of daily stressors on the body. This is important, as age-related neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are associated with both excess inflammation and the buildup of toxins in the brain.
A 2014 study has found that compounds in the herb may help switch off epigenetic changes that increase systemic inflammation. Epigenetic changes occur when an environmental factor alters the ways your genes are expressed. In this case, psychoactive THC switched off genes that are thought to cause rampant inflammation in diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Further animal research has shown that both THC and non-psychoactive CBD eliminate neurotoxins associated with Parkinson’s. This is due to the herb’s antioxidant capabilities. More research still has claimed that these antioxidant properties have potential therapeutic effects in age-related diseases.
The U.S. Government has even acknowledged that CBD is a more potent antioxidant than vitamins C and E. Antioxidants protect your DNA from damage caused by both biological and environmental factors. Damage to DNA over time causes aging.
When your body becomes overburdened by damage, your risk for developing a debilitating illness increases. Finding a way to combat this damage is essential to prolonging good health.
Treatment and prevention of 4 brain diseases
The neuroprotective properties of cannabis give the herb tremendous therapeutic potential. Neurological disorders are qualifying medical cannabis conditions in most legal states. Several studies have looked into how the herb helps relieve symptoms in a variety of age-related brain diseases.
1. Alzheimer’s disease
Cannabis as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease shows tremendous potential in both observational and clinical models. This is great news, as a growing number of elderly are developing the disease. Case reports and open studies of oral THC (dronabinol) found that the herb decreased neuropsychiatric symptoms of dementia and reduced agitation.
Most recently, a team of researchers found that THC effectively eliminates the buildup of amyloid plaques in cells cultured outside of the body. These plaques are neurotoxins which block the communication between neurons in the brain. At the same time, the psychoactive also decreases brain cell inflammation.
Another study conducted by Ohio State University back in 2008 found that synthetic cannabinoids improved memory and reduced inflammation in old rats. They highlighted that these anti-inflammatory and memory-boosting properties can potentially be used as a tool to protect against impairment in the normal aging process.
In an interview with LeafScience, Ohio study coauthor Gary Wenk Ph.D., explains,
I think all we can say safely so far is using low doses of marijuana for prolonged periods of time at some point in your life, possibly when you’re middle-aged to late middle-aged, is probably going to slow the onset or development of dementia, to the point where you’ll most likely die of old age before you get Alzheimer’s. – Wenk
In another interview, Wenk discusses some survey work he did with chronic cannabis consumers. He shares:
Individuals who smoked marijuana in the ‘60s and ‘70s, who are now entering their 60s and 70s, are not getting Alzheimer’s at the rate they should be.
Wenk, however, also explains that excessive exposure to cannabis when you’re young may have a detrimental effect. However, as you get older, cannabinoids interact with your body in a different way. This suggests that cannabis may be more helpful to aging adults than healthy, young people whose brains are still developing.
For more information on cannabis and Alzheimer’s disease, read our article here.
2. Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s is another major age-related neurological disorder. Fortunately, there is some good evidence that cannabis may offer symptom relief. A peer-reviewed study published in 2014 found that Parkinson’s patients who smoked cannabis saw significant improvements in tremor, rigidity, sleep, and pain. The study looked at 22 patients.
Another 2004 peer-reviewed patient survey also supports these findings. The survey questioned 339 Parkinson’s patients at a Prague Movement Disorder clinic. 25% of patients reported trying cannabis to ease their symptoms. Patients were mostly using about a teaspoon of fresh or dried cannabis once a day, and only one of the patients inhaled.
Only 4 of the 85 cannabis-using patients reported a worsening of symptoms. Many patients experienced some sort of improvement in their symptoms. 39 patients reported that the herb improved their Parkinson’s in general.
38 patients reported that they had improvement in bradykinesia (slowness of movement). Other patients reported improvement in tremor. Those taking less than 50 ng/ml of THC did not experience improvement.
None of the patients had used cannabis recreationally prior to developing Parkinson’s disease. Further, those that used the herb for 3 months or longer were more likely to report symptom relief. In general, it took about 1.7 months for patients to begin to feel positive improvements from the herb.
Not all studies have been as positive, however. A randomized, double-blind trial in 2004 treated 17 Parkinson’s patients with oral cannabis extracts. The patients suffered from voluntary muscle impairments induced by Parkinson’s drug Levodopa.
Though the herb was well-tolerated, the study did not find significant improvement in levodopa-induced muscle impairment.
Yet, an earlier randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot study of 7 Parkinson’s patients found that synthetic cannabinoids were effective in improving voluntary muscle movement in adverse levodopa patients.
There have been many other studies on cannabis and Parkinsons both in vitro and in animal models. Some even indicate that the herb might slow the progression of the disease.
For more information on these studies, read our article here.
3. Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS)
Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), is another disease that causes motor neurons to die. The condition most commonly affects those between the ages of 60 and 69. Unfortunately, the condition is often fatal and patients face limited treatment options.
In 2014, a peer-reviewed survey found that cannabis-using patients with ALS reported significant improvements in their symptoms. The survey looked at responses from 102 patients, 21% of which used cannabis. A large majority of the cannabis users found significant improvements in appetite, sleep, anxiety, depression, and muscle relaxation.
There’s also some evidence that cannabis may delay the onset of disease symptoms. A 2005 study in mice found that 5mg of CBN (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) over 12 weeks pushed back symptom onset.
A review published in 2010 made a call for clinical trials after success in animal models of ALS. The review explains that cannabis shows potential in pain management, muscle relaxation, bronchodilation, as well as saliva reduction.
Yet, a randomized, double-blind trial of 27 ALS patients found that oral THC did not improve muscle cramps. However, the study only used 5mg of THC administered twice daily. Those who work in the cannabis world know that a single dose of THC is considered to be 10mg taken at one time.
The 10mg dose is also only considered a baseline dose. Your sex and other genetic and biological factors contribute to how much THC you need before you feel any effects.
In this study, 20 of the patients were men and only 7 were women. Recent research has shown that men require more THC than women to feel the same effects. Though, for some good news, THC was well-tolerated throughout the trial.
As far as anecdotal evidence goes, cannabis has helped one ALS patient outlive her own doctors. Read this fascinating story here.
4. Multiple sclerosis
Though multiple sclerosis is technically an autoimmune disease rather than ailment of aging itself, it typically sets in at 34 years old. This is when your brain crosses the threshold from young and growing, to a mature adult on the decline.
Rather than experiencing a heavy neurotoxin burden like the other neurodegenerative illnesses, those with MS face rampant inflammation in the brain.
The good news is that patients in many countries can already legally use cannabis-based pharmaceuticals. The GW Pharmaceuticals drug Sativex is a liquid mixture containing both THC and CBD. It has gone through clinical trials and is already out on the market for patients to use. It’s not available in the US, however.
There are several high-quality studies that prove the herb’s success in treating multiple sclerosis. One impressive double-blind trial tested over 275 patients. 144 MS patients were given cannabis extracts and then compared to 135 placebo controls. After 12 weeks, relief from muscle stiffness was almost twice as high among those treated with cannabis.
Another double-blind randomized controlled trial treated 124 MS patients with both THC and CBD. The patients all experienced muscle spasticity. Those given cannabis treatments experienced symptom relief that was “significantly superior” to placebo. Improvements were seen after only 6 weeks of treatment.
There are many other benefits to cannabis treatment as well. Some of these include relief from depression, improved vision, and improved sleep. We dive into these symptoms further in our full article, linked below.
For more information on why cannabis is successful in MS treatment, take a look at our full article here.
So, hoping to age well? You might want to try a little cannabis. There is a lot of good evidence that cannabis and aging brains go hand-in-hand. Some researchers like Gary Wenk think that the herb can lower your risk of serious neurological diseases.
A wealth of additional research shows that the herb can help once you already have an age-related brain disease. In fact, cannabis may even delay or slow the progression of neurological disorders if taken pre-emptively. As you get older, cannabis might just become your new best bud.
Has cannabis helped you cope with an aging brain? Share your story with us on social media or in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.