Medical Cannabis & Dementia: What We Know

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Dec 5, 2023
Last updated:
May 2, 2024

Dementia describes a range of neurological symptoms that mostly affect people over 65, yet dementia can occur at any age. Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia, so caring for people living with the disease usually involves symptom management and reducing progression.

Currently, there’s not enough high-quality evidence to support the use of medical cannabis in managing dementia symptoms, but there are some promising early findings.  

Researchers are investigating the two most well-known cannabinoids — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) —  along with certain terpenes and flavonoids, for their potential use in managing dementia.

What Is Dementia?

In 2022 over 400,000 Australians were living with dementia, a number that’s predicted to double by 2058.

Nearly two-thirds of people with dementia are women, and the condition is the second leading cause of death in Australia. Since dementia affects so many lives, it’s essential to understand the disease, as well as its signs and symptoms.

‘Dementia’ is not one specific disease. Rather, it’s an umbrella term that describes a collection of symptoms such as impaired memory, changes in mood & behaviour, reduced problem solving abilities or planning capacity, difficulty with everyday tasks and confusion about time or place. Dementia symptoms can indicate a variety of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body disease & vascular dementia.

Risk factors for developing dementia include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, alcohol misuse, sedentary lifestyle, social isolation and mental illness, such as depression. Dementia may also develop after a stroke, repetitive brain injury or when someone has nutritional deficiencies.

Dementia is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms of the disease may worsen over time. This is because the diseases that cause dementia destroy nerve cells and damage the brain, leading to a reduced ability to process thoughts. Although some cognitive decline is expected as we age, the amount of decline characterising dementia isn’t a normal part of ageing.

What Are The Symptoms Of Dementia?

Mood and behavioural changes are sometimes the earliest symptoms of dementia, even before memory issues start to appear. A person with dementia may begin to feel anxious, sad or frustrated. Their personality may also appear to change and they may withdraw from work and social activities or begin to display inappropriate behaviour.

Some other symptoms are:

  • getting lost during walks or driving
  • finding familiar places confusing
  • difficulty keeping track of time
  • struggling to follow conversations or find the right words
  • forgetting items or recent events
  • familiar tasks suddenly becoming difficult
  • losing things often.

Dementia symptoms will usually worsen over time and people with the condition may eventually require help from others with daily activities. Managing dementia can be very challenging for both the patient and their carers. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of understanding around dementia, which can lead to stigmatisation and create barriers to getting a diagnosis and proper care.

Does Medical Cannabis Help Manage Dementia?

We can’t say with certainty that medical cannabis is an effective treatment for managing dementia. But there are some promising early findings that suggest cannabis may play a role in dementia treatment in the future.

Some research suggests certain compounds in medical cannabis may have neuroprotective properties. Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition, may account for 60-70% of dementia cases, meaning neuroprotective medications may help prevent the development of some types of dementia.

There have been recent studies that show a potential use for medical cannabis in the management of dementia.

In 2019 a randomised, placebo-controlled trial of 39 dementia patients found that Nabilone (a synthetic THC medicine) may be effective at reducing agitation in dementia patients.

Although promising, the researchers noted that sedation and potential cognitive slowing associated with Nabilone treatment should be closely monitored. They also emphasised the need for longer studies with larger groups, but that these early findings provide a hopeful perspective on the future of dementia treatment.

Another smaller, but more recent, study from 2022 assessed dementia patients and their reaction to a combination THC/CBD medication over a 13-month period. The results were positive: the patients' symptoms improved, and they were able to reduce the amount of other medications they were taking. Although encouraging, the study was limited by its small sample size of only 19 participants.

What Are the Risks Of Using Medical Cannabis For People With Dementia?

While there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that cannabis can cause dementia, people with dementia need to be aware of the risks involved with medical cannabis. Medical cannabis products can cause drowsiness and loss of coordination, meaning it may pose an extra risk if someone is more vulnerable to falls.

A doctor will carefully consider any medications prescribed prior to prescribing medical cannabis. Several common dementia medications such as Donepezil can also cause drowsiness, which may pose risks when combined with medical cannabis.

Although medical cannabis containing THC may affect memory and cognition, there is little to no evidence to suggest that medical cannabis might increase cognitive decline in older people. One review even states that medical cannabis may be beneficial for brain function in older adults. However, there remains a lack of studies in this area at this stage.

It’s important to take care when using medical cannabis for any condition particularly dementia as patients may already be experiencing confusion or anxiety. It is imperative to work with a qualified doctor as they will assess each patient individually and prescribe a safe medication and dosage tailored to specific needs.

Speaking With Your Doctor About Dementia

Living with any chronic condition can be a great challenge for a person and their loved ones, which is why education and access to proper care is vital.

Thankfully, researchers and medical professionals are continually discovering the benefits of alternative therapies such as medical cannabis. With more research, we may see these medications used more often in the management of chronic conditions such as dementia, when conventional treatments aren’t effective or cause unmanageable side effects.

Like many conditions, early diagnosis of dementia can improve treatment outcomes and provide more options. If you are concerned you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms associated with dementia, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

Similarly, if you or your loved one are experiencing challenges due to symptoms of dementia, and previous treatments have been unsuccessful, book a consultation with your GP or a dedicated cannabis clinic to discuss if medical cannabis may be able to help.

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