New UF study seeks to understand how medical marijuana affects older adults

Medical MarijuanaOlder adults represent the fastest growing segment of medical marijuana users in the United States, with pain as the most commonly cited reason for use. Yet, very little is known about medical marijuana’s effects in this population. A new University of Florida study, supported by a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, hopes to fill in the knowledge gaps.

“While marijuana’s effect on chronic pain remains controversial, evidence on medical marijuana’s impacts on older adults is even more scarce,” said lead investigator Yan Wang, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine. “There is a critical need to systematically examine medical marijuana’s short- and long-term effects on core outcomes in older adults, including pain intensity, physical, emotional and cognitive functioning, and overall quality of life, as well as tracking side effects.”

In the U.S., 37 states, including Florida, allow medical marijuana use for qualified individuals. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 found that cannabis use among adults over 65 had increased 75 percent between 2015 and 2018, rising from 2.4% of older adults to 4.2%.

The UF study will follow a group of older adult medical marijuana users over the course of one year, using an innovative combination of technology-based assessments and in-person visits. Researchers will also measure participants’ telomere length, a biomarker of cellular aging.

The study takes advantage of the ubiquity of mobile technology by asking participants to respond to frequent surveys through their smartphones. Known as ecological momentary assessments, these self-reports capture participants’ behaviors and experiences in real time. Participants will also wear Fitbits in order to record data on factors such as physical activity and sleep.

Taken together, the data collected through mobile technology, combined with in-person visits and biological samples, should give investigators a clearer picture of short-term changes in pain and physical and cognitive functioning, long-term changes in these health outcomes as well as telomere length, and what medical marijuana characteristics, such as dose and product type, may produce greater improvements or side effects.

“Our findings will provide valuable information for physicians and patients when considering medical marijuana as a treatment,” Wang said.

Co-investigators on the study include UF faculty Robert Cook, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of epidemiology and medicine; Zhigang Li, Ph.D., an associate professor of biostatistics; Rene Przkora, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of anesthesiology; and Kimberly Sibille, Ph.D., an associate professor of aging & geriatric research and pain medicine.