GUEST POST: Medical Cannabis and Alzheimer’s Disease - What You Should Know

Medical cannabis has been used for years in the treatment and management of chronic illnesses including cancer, chronic pain, anxiety and sleep issues. More recently, researchers have been looking into the efficacy of medical cannabis in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Before examining the role medical cannabis may play in the treatment of this disease, it is helpful to understand the disease itself. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that accounts for 60-80% of dementia diagnoses, and impacts memory, thinking and behavior. It is a progressive disease that ultimately interferes with a person’s ability to perform daily activities. Although many people are familiar with the disease on a limited basis, most are unaware of the fact that Alzheimer’s disease is actually the sixth leading cause of death in the United States today.

The greatest and most unavoidable risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. Most people who are diagnosed with the disease are over the age of 65, however there currently  are approximately 200,000 people in the United States under the age of 65 that have been diagnosed with young-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The progression of Alzheimer’s begins in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning, processing, and storing new information. For this reason, one of the first signs one experiences is mild memory loss. As the disease moves through the brain, the symptoms become more severe. Those living with Alzheimer’s can become disoriented, undergo changes in mood and behavior, experience confusion, and find difficulty in basic functions such as speaking and walking. After diagnosis, people typically live between four to eight years. In some cases, Alzheimer’s disease does not become fatal for up to 20 years, but unfortunately this is relatively rare.

At this time, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, though research is ongoing via scores of clinical trials. While there are existing treatments to help manage the symptoms and improve the quality of life for someone living with the disease, these solutions are ineffective in halting its progression.  

Anyone experiencing warning signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia should see a doctor as soon as possible. For more information, the Alzheimer's Association is an excellent resource, and contains communication information for doctors with Alzheimer’s experience along with other community resources.  

Alzheimer’s Disease and the Brain

Autopsies have shown that human aging involves the development of substances called “plaques” and “tangles”. “Plaques” are deposits of protein called beta-amyloid, while “tangles” are twisted fibers of another protein called “Tau proteins,” or “τ proteins.”

Patients with Alzheimer's generally have more of these plaques and tangles than the average person. Furthermore, individuals with the disease show aggressive development of these substances, first in the areas important for memory, and then in other areas of the brain.

The exact role that plaques and tangles play in Alzheimer’s is still something of a mystery, but most experts believe that they block communication among the nerve cells and disrupt the processes that help cells survive. When these nerve cells are destroyed, problems with memory, mood and behavior start to occur along with other symptoms of the disease including the ability to perform basic daily activities.

The Potential Role of Medical Cannabis

Historically, people living with Alzheimer’s disease have used medical cannabis to help with depression and loss of appetite. According to the United Kingdom’s Alzheimer’s Society, medical cannabis could be extremely beneficial in counteracting symptoms like agitation and aggression. In fact, in 2014 there was a preclinical study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that found that THC helped slow the advancement of beta-amyloids, one of the proteins thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. There is also some research that shows there may be potential therapeutic effects of THC on the disease.

All things considered, the research on medical cannabis and Alzheimer’s disease is still new and limited compared to other diseases, and while researchers are hopeful, much more research is needed in this area to determine the impact and potential benefits.

Melissa Morante is an owner of ComForCare Home Care and serves as Chief Marketing Officer.

Melissa is an expert in Parkinson’s Disease, working to train the agency’s caregivers on recognizing both motor and non-motor symptoms and how to care for those living with the disease.  She serves on the board of directors for the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) South Florida Chapter lending support to those who are living with the disease. Melissa facilitates a support group for family caregivers and those for whom they care.

As a health and wellness aficionado, Melissa believes that a healthy lifestyle and a diet rich in whole foods and regular exercise are the best medicines. Melissa is a certified group fitness instructor with a specialty in senior fitness. She currently volunteers her time leading exercise classes in independent living facilities throughout the area.

About ComForCare

ComForCare Home Care offers private-duty, non-medical home health care that allows people to age comfortably, safely and happily in place. The company has unique expertise in working with those living with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementia, Parkinson’s Disease and other chronic conditions. Services include grooming, hygiene, meal preparation, light housekeeping, transportation, medication reminder and more.

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