Dementia generally refers to any condition characterized by a decline in cognitive ability, and is caused by abnormal changes or damage to cells in the brain.
Millions of people worldwide have dementia, a term which encompasses a wide range of medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. However, dementia generally refers to any condition characterized by a decline in cognitive ability, and is caused by abnormal changes or damage to cells in the brain.
Dementia is not considered to be a normal part of aging, and the condition can severely impair everyday life for those affected. People living with dementia may be unable to function independently, and may struggle with their feelings and behavior, especially around friends, family, and caregivers. Other common symptoms of dementia include loss of memory and coordination, trouble keeping track of appointments and bills, and often forgetting personal belongings like wallets or cell phones.
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia is caused by deterioration in the part of the brain responsible for thoughts, actions, and memories. When cells in this region of the brain are damaged, one experiences symptoms like problems with memory and coordination. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the build-up of abnormal proteins which form plaque-like deposits in the brain and destroy cells, which can result in severe decline in cognitive function.
Vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia, happens when there is inadequate blood flow to the brain, and generally presents in patients who have had a series of strokes. Although most types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, are progressive and irreversible, some types of dementia, such as dementia caused by vitamin deficiencies or blunt-force trauma to the head may clear up once the patient’s vitamin levels have been restored, or once the injury heals.
Does Cannabis Use Lead To Dementia?
Some claim that regular cannabis use may accelerate memory loss and lower cognitive function over time, and studies have consistently shown that those who have recently used marijuana demonstrate acute memory dysfunction along with other short-term impairments in cognitive function. Currently, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the effects of THC and other medicines found in cannabis persist after intoxication. In fact, some research shows that the residual effects of THC subside completely subside 48 hours after administration. However, more research is needed before we can effectively dismiss a link between cannabis use and dementia.
Can Cannabis Be Used To Treat Dementia?
As states race to legalize medical marijuana, many have become more interested in the therapeutic effects of cannabis, especially on those with progressive, incurable diseases like dementia. Although there has been little research done on the effects of cannabis use in those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, some literature has shown that cannabis may be helpful in treating symptoms of agitation, irritability, and loss of appetite that usually also present in patients with dementia. With this in mind, dementia care should occur under the guidance of a caring and knowledgeable cannabis specialist.
There is also considerable excitement and interest in the cannabis community about whether cannabis or its derivatives can help slow or prevent dementia. Sadly, there is little evidence as of yet to support this enthusiasm. In the test tube, there are data to suggest that CBD and other cannabinoids may be “neuroprotective” – preventing further degradation of brain function. However, there is currently no research in humans suggesting that any derivative of cannabis, including THC or CBD, is effective in treating memory loss as a result of Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. Moreover, the participants in the study above already had significant memory loss and impaired cognitive function, and there have not been studies conducted on patients in the early stages of cognitive decline.
All enthusiasm aside, it’s important to remember that humans are complex organisms and what works in a test-tube or even in a mouse, does not mean it will work for people. In fact, most medications that work for rodents, do not work in people. We need to slow our roll, and wait for the studies to be done.
Jordan Tishler, M.D. is a physician, cannabis specialist, and faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is also President of the Association of Cannabis Specialists, and CEO of InhaleMD – a private institute of cannabis medicine. For more information, or to set up a consultation with the team at InhaleMD, call (617) 861-8519.