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Use of Medical Marijuana to Treat Dementia Symptoms

March 3, 2020
Categories: Research

As people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia progress through their memory loss journeys, many experience agitation and aggressive impulses that can lead them to act out. This behavior might include restlessness, yelling, and combativeness, among other symptoms, and it can be a danger to the wellbeing of both the person living with the memory loss illness and their caregiver.

The standard treatment for agitation in people who are living with a dementia illness has long been the use of antipsychotic, antianxiety, antidepressant, and antiepileptic drugs. Unfortunately, these medications are often limited in their effectiveness and can carry such mortality risks as cardiovascular and cerebrovascular effects, cognitive worsening, infections, and falls.

It’s these risks of conventional medications – combined with a growing number of purported benefits – that make the use of marijuana an intriguing alternative. Clinical studies on its effectiveness are still limited, but many have shown great promise. Some of the possible benefits may include:

  • Reduction in behavioral problems including aggression and screaming
  • Reduced rigidity, making caregiver activities like bathing and transferring easier
  • Reduced need for sometimes dangerous psychotropic medications
  • Side effects limited to dry mouth, loss of balance, forgetfulness, sleepiness, and occasional euphoria

As many family members and caregivers know, it can be incredibly painful to watch a loved one struggle with anxiety, agitation, and other effects of a memory loss illness, which is what makes these early findings so exciting. Many more studies will need to be completed to determine the most effective dosages of the active chemicals in marijuana – THC and CBD – and to rule out more severe side effects, but it seems likely that we will continue to see much more of this treatment alternative in the near future.

One thing worth noting, however, is that marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the United States government and, as such, is not permitted in senior living communities and hospitals that receive government funding or accept Medicare and Medicaid. Even if your state has legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use, the government’s ban supersedes that, meaning you can still be prosecuted for its use. Unless federal laws are changed, it’s unlikely you will see widespread usage of marijuana to treat dementia across the country – and usage will probably be limited to in-home and care communities that don’t use federal health insurance.

For more information on caring for a loved one living with a memory care illness, visit the Artis Senior Living blog.

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