Senior Citizens, Marijuana and Parkinson’s: What I’ve Learned

Cannabis Oil and Parkinson's - Davis Phinney Foundation

Written by Tom Sheppard

Prompted by years of  insomnia related to Parkinson’s  and intriguing stories of marijuana as a solution, I decided to research the subject to see if it was something I should try. At age 75, and with no experience, I had a lot to learn.  

It seems to me that people with Parkinson’s  should be very cautious about using cannabis because of its effect on thinking. Some people with Parkinson’s experience impairment of  executive function—the ability to make plans and limit risky behavior. It only makes sense that someone with a medical condition that impairs executive function should be cautious about using any medication that can compound this effect.   

DPF Note: We wanted to know what one of our trusted doctors had to say about this; so, we asked Dr. Benzi Kluger about marijuana and cognitive function. He said,  

Marijuana and cannabis products definitely have the potential to worsen thinking, memory and motivation. These are some of the side effects I go over when counseling patients. I have found that for most people taking reasonable doses for specific symptoms, and particularly for high CBD/low THC products, the rates of cognitive impairment are low but can be a reason for persons to stop taking these products. We do not know what the long-term risks are for these products, so we should balance the potential risks of these products against the risks of alternative medications (e.g. benzodiazepines) or the symptoms we’re treating (e.g. insomnia and sleep deprivation).
– Benzi Kluger, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver 

So, with this in mind, I set out to do some research on the  efficacy of marijuana  to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s.  

I was underwhelmed with the amount of scientific research to date.  Ryan Vandrey,  an associate professor of behavioral pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University says, “We need a lot more data to inform the policies that are happening.”  

Vandrey  has no stance on whether marijuana is good or bad,  and while he acknowledges that the basis for medicinal benefits from marijuana is strong, and it has been found to alleviate chronic pain, muscle spasms, anxiety,  dyskinesia,  nausea and vomiting,  he  wishes that policies around the drug had the data typically required when approving a new therapy. It seems that marijuana is being approved by legislatures and popular vote and not by medical evidence.    

There are a lot of  reports  claiming improvement with the use of marijuana for people with Parkinson’s. The problem with the personal reports is the lack of serious scientific evidence necessary to truly understand the effects of marijuana on specific Parkinson’s symptoms. Anecdotes and small studies, although intriguing and encouraging, do  not make the best case for its use.    

Another issue with using marijuana for Parkinson’s treatment relates to obtaining consistent concentrations of the active ingredients from available sources. Despite some promising findings, there hasn’t been enough study done to reach a conclusion.  

For me, and others like me, it comes down to this: 

  1. Cannabis can be a sleep aid. Even people with the most stubborn insomnia have found  relief.  
  2. Many of the claims regarding benefits of marijuana have not been adequately evaluated so it’s a use at your own risk situation. And while using it,  remain under the care of a movement disorder specialist who can help you monitor how it’s working for you, in combination with  the other medical and complementary therapies you’re trying.  
  3. The biggest question of all, setting aside the idea of its efficacy, is this: Is it dangerous for people with Parkinson’s?     

My doctor said, “There’s some evidence of loss of cognitive skills for people with Parkinson’s. It’s probably okay in the short-term, but the long-term is questionable.”   

Since I’m 75-years old, long-term effects aren’t as important to me now as they may have been twenty years ago; so, what he said didn’t deter me. 

My thoughts after researching and studying marijuana and its use for people with Parkinson’s is that even legal marijuana is the wild west. Federal, state and local laws conflict; there is very little scientific evidence confirming its usefulness; and even if FDA standards are not met, local and state governments are approving new stores  and dispensaries.   

On the individual side of things, there’s a significant number of anecdotes that tell the same story: “It worked for me and I’m still healthy.”  

So, while the lack of scientific research made me skeptical, I decided to go shopping anyway and find out for myself.  

In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about my first trip to a marijuana dispensary. 

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