Medical Marijuana and Dementia

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a collective term used to describe a decrease in mental acuity and functioning that impacts and more, interferes, with the routines of daily living.  There are several types of dementia,  with each one progressing steadily over time, and ultimately proving fatal.  Dementia is not a diagnosis in its own right, but a collection of symptoms that generally leads to secondary diagnosis and chronic, terminal conditions.  Though it is thought to be an impairment of old age, early onset dementia can occur in individuals as young as 30.  

Alzheimer’s Disease

The most common form of dementia and the one people are most familiar with.  While it is often referred to as a “normal” part of aging, Alzheimer’s is anything but. This disease brings with it memory loss, an inability to function independently, a reliance on others for eating, grooming, ambulation, and overall self care.  People plagued with this disease often forget to eat, and suffer severe mood fluctuations, disorientation, and paranoia.

Known as the second most common form of dementia, Lewy Body Dementia is closely linked to Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s.  Small proteins known as Lewy bodies, disrupt communication within the brain, ultimately causing brain cell death.  Concentration, motor coordination and focus are the areas most often affected by this form of dementia. Mental acuity, by way of hallucinations and particularly vivid dreams characterize Lewy body, too.

Vascular Dementia

This may look like many others, but it is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain. This form of dementia can develop after an individual has a stroke and poses greater risks for those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and those who smoke. Inabilities to process one’s environment, maintain a steady gait, and communicate effectively are but some of the hallmarks of this type of dementia.  Those suffering from this disease are at an increased risk for subsequent strokes and mini-strokes, known as transient ischemic attacks.

How can Medical Marijuana help people with Dementia?

While there are no medications or treatments on the market as of yet that can cure any form of dementia, there are several ways in which medical marijuana can abate and lessen some of its attendant symptoms.  

Frustration as a result of a diminished ability to self- care and understand their environment, particularly as one loses their independence, is a hallmark of the dementias.  While an individual progresses through their disease process, they often experience moments of clarity and awareness in which they realize just how much functionality they have lost.  These moments can be downright frightening as well as the catalyst for increased agitation, anxiety, and depression.  

Medicinal marijuana can be of great help to the dementia community, as it is known to boost appetite and combat at least in part the cachexia, or wasting, that accompanies dementia. If the dementia patient is still able to eat, they can enjoy a high calorie snack packed with marijuana edibles.  If they can tolerate smoking, even if someone else is holding the joint or vape pen, they can enjoy cannabis this way, too. With this population, a case of the munchies is a very good thing!

While medical marijuana can be used as an appetite stimulant, it can also be used to diminish agitation.  Marijuana can induce levels of calm and sedation in patients who are anxious.  Cannabis is a psychoactive drug that must be dosed properly in order to achieve the right levels of efficacy.  As such, there are individuals who can become more agitated if they ingest too much marijuana.  Nevertheless and as with any medication, proper medical oversight is needed.

Where do we go from here?

Though more research is needed on marijuana as a treatment modality for symptoms related to dementia, there is a ray of hope in its use for this community.  The toll of caring for a loved one with any type of dementia is enormous.  The stresses of caring for elderly parents who can no longer toilet themselves, as well as the sudden decline in the cognition of a once brilliant professional, can be devastating on every possible level.  Though there is no cure for dementia, there are ways to mitigate its symptoms and provide both physical and emotional support to its victims.  

We owe it to ourselves to appreciate the medicinal aspects of cannabis in all of its forms.  What does not prove effective today, may prove so tomorrow in an entirely new form.  We cannot extract dementia from a person’s brain, but we can give them a bit of comfort and moments of calm and relief even if momentarily, from the torment dementia causes. We need more research and a way to incorporate medicinal marijuana into the treatment regimens of individuals with any and all forms of this disease.

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