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Your brain: it may not have always been our first priority, however, it becomes very apparent that staying on top of our cognitive health is increasingly more important as we get older. Out of about 50 different types of dementia, Alzheimer’s is the most common, affecting an estimated 5.3 million adults 65 or over and 200,000 adults under 65. With these kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder that doctors, scientists, and patients alike are all looking for more effective ways to prevent and treat this progressive disease. As medical marijuana and cannabis-derived products become more widely accepted and readily available, you may be wondering if this plant can help. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you’ve come to the right place: in this article, we’ll address the most frequently asked questions regarding Alzheimer’s disease, and why many people are turning to cannabis to treat it.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive brain disorder where a type of protein called beta-amyloid group together between nerve cells, causing a block in cell-to-cell signaling at synapses. This manifests itself physically by first affecting important cognitive functions like memory and learning and later moves on to inhibiting one from performing everyday tasks like walking, speaking, and taking care of oneself. Doctors have determined that 1 in 3 elderly die with some form of dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
Can you die from Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s Disease is always fatal. It’s true that in early stages, most symptoms affect cognitive functions like memory and learning. In advanced stages of this disease, a patient may stop eating or drinking, or have difficulty with autonomic functions like breathing and heart rate. Oftentimes, the cause of death isn’t the disease, but complications from it: vital human functions slow down significantly due to quick and severe cognitive decline, leaving them susceptible to additional disease, illness, and infection. Death from Alzheimer’s can happen quickly, however, patients who are relatively healthy when diagnosed can live significantly longer (up to 20 years or longer).
Who is at risk for Alzheimer’s?
Uncontrollable risk factors for Alzheimer’s have been reduced to 3 major themes:
Age: The risk for Alzheimer’s disease doubles about every 5 years after age 65. Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 1 in 14 people over 65, and 1 in 6 over age 80.
Family history: Your chances of developing Alzheimer’s increase significantly if you have one or more immediate family members who have developed the disease.
Genetics: There are a few genetic factors that can either leave a person at higher risk (risk genes) or guarantee that they will develop this disease (deterministic gene). A deterministic gene, although rare, will typically manifest earlier than other Alzheimer’s symptoms, sometimes as early as a person in their 30’s or 40’s.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s vs. Normal Aging
Like all forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s is caused by the death of brain cells at a faster rate than that of typically-aging brains. As we and our loved ones get older, it can be hard to tell what behaviors are age-related and which ones might be early signs of Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association put together a detailed list of 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s, which you can check against normal signs of aging:
Dementia: you experience regular memory loss that disrupts daily life.
Normal age-related change: you sometimes forget names or appointments, but can remember them later.
Dementia: it is increasingly difficult for you to solve problems or make sense of numbers.
Normal age-related change: you make occasional errors balancing your checkbook.
Dementia: you have difficulty doing things that are part of your normal routine (at work or home).
Normal age-related change: you occasionally need help with the settings on a microwave or recording a tv show.
Dementia: you often find yourself confused with dates, seasons, or the passage of time.
Normal age-related change: you occasionally get confused about the day of the week, but are able to remember later.
Dementia: you notice vision problems, such as a poor sense of depth perception or difficulty reading.
Normal age-related change: you have vision changes due to cataracts.
Dementia: you struggle to speak, stop in the middle of sentences, or have difficulty following a conversation.
Normal age-related change: you sometimes having trouble finding the right word when speaking or writing.
Dementia: you find yourself leaving things in odd places, and have difficulty retracing your steps to find misplaced items
Normal age-related change: you occasionally misplace belongings, but you can usually retrace your steps to locate them.
Dementia: your decision making and judgment become poor or questionable.
Normal age-related change: you occasionally make a bad choice.
Dementia: you find yourself withdrawing from social activities, hobbies, or things you normally enjoy.
Normal age-related change: you sometimes feel weary of family, social, or work obligations.
Dementia: you notice mood or personality changes, and you find you are often confused, depressed, anxious, or irritable.
Normal age-related change: you are comfortable with your routine and the way you do things, and become agitated when your flow is disrupted.
The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that physical changes in the brain can begin as much as 20 years before diagnosis, and physical symptoms are virtually undetectable for much of that time. It’s important to pay attention to any warning signs and be honest with yourself about the changes you may be feeling, especially if you are over 65. Talk to your trusted medical provider if you feel you may be showing signs of Alzheimer’s, and they will be able to take additional steps to help diagnose you accurately.
What about early-onset Alzheimer’s?
If you think you or a loved one may be experiencing signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s, it can be frustrating to get an accurate diagnosis as most doctors won’t look for this disease in younger patients. This type of dementia is usually hereditary and unpreventable, but early genetic testing could help determine whether or not you carry the gene, which can help you get a head start on slowing down the process. These early signs manifest in the brain and can be detected by MRI up to a decade before a diagnosis would typically be made. Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are similar to that of Alzheimer’s, but they can begin as early as 30 years old (and in rare cases, even earlier).
Can I prevent Alzheimer’s?
We can’t change our age, family history, or genetics, so a fool-proof Alzheimer’s disease prevention plan doesn’t exist. There are, however, things we can do to promote cognitive health and a healthy aging process, which is believed to help prevent and even slow down cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s. You can do this through things like:
Physical exercise: we know it’s good for our hearts, but according to the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, “what’s good for your heart can be good for your brain.” Exercise has not only been found to be essential in slowing down cognitive decline, but it’s been found to be beneficial in those who are already showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
Mental exercise: there’s no scientific proof that brain games make you smarter, however, cognitive training using repetitive memory and reasoning exercises could help improve cognitive function and slow down signs of aging in the brain. Want to do more than word games? Picking up a new language, reading a new book (especially novels), or learning a new skill have all been proven to be helpful in slowing age-related cognitive decline.
Healthy habits: eating well and drinking enough water has a huge impact on brain health. Staying away from processed foods, high sugar content, and unhealthy fats are essential in preventing Alzheimer’s, as the disease is often linked to hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
How does cannabis help Alzheimer’s?
While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, there is enough data out there to heavily support cannabis as a powerful alternative to conventional Alzheimer’s treatments. Here is what we know (so far) about cannabis and Alzheimer’s:
Cannabis slows beta-amyloid buildup: An extensive report published in the British Journal of Pharmacology confirmed that Alzheimer’s is caused by beta-amyloid deposits between nerve cells, and, what do you know: the cannabinoid THC (a chemical compound found in marijuana) has been found to slow the overall production and damaging buildup of beta-amyloid in the brain. A preclinical study published in 2014 by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported that THC, when administered in small doses, offered incredible therapeutic benefits and the results “strongly suggest” that it is a promising treatment option for Alzheimer’s.
Cannabis promotes neurogenesis: a common myth around cannabis is that it kills brain cells or can make people “dumb.” While it’s true that heavy recreational cannabis use may be problematic on the developing adolescent brain, data on adult cannabis use actually says otherwise. Cannabinoids promote a natural biological process called neurogenesis, in which new nerve tissue develops in the brain. You read that right: your brain has the ability to create and build brand new brain cells, and science has proven that cannabis helps.
Cannabis provides antioxidants: Alzheimer’s is directly linked to oxidative stress in the brain. Our bodies need oxygen to live, but high concentrations can be toxic. Dr. Andrew Weil explains this process best: “We obtain energy by burning fuel with oxygen – that is, by combining digested food with oxygen from the air we breathe. This is a controlled metabolic process that, unfortunately, also generates dangerous byproducts. These include free radicals…Oxidative stress is the total burden placed on organisms by the constant production of free radicals in the normal course of metabolism plus whatever other pressures the environment brings to bear (natural and artificial radiation, toxins in the air, food, and water; and miscellaneous sources of oxidizing activity, such as tobacco smoke).” Oxidative damage is normal in the aging process, however, it happens at a more rapid pace in Alzheimer’s patients. It’s well known that antioxidants are one of the best weapons against oxidative damage, and studies have long shown that both CBD and THC are potent neuroprotective antioxidants and powerful agents in treating oxidative neurological disorders.
Cannabis acts as a neuroprotectant: The February 2004 issue of the Journal of Neurochemistry published a study specifically on the cannabinoid CBD in relation to Alzheimer’s Disease. The results reported that CBD exhibited exceptional anti-oxidative and neuroprotective qualities. Don’t forget that the United States put a patent on cannabinoids as well, specifically in regard to its neuroprotective properties. The patent states that “the cannabinoids [THC and CBD] are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease…”
Cannabis outperforms pharmaceuticals: This study from 2006 claims that compared to pharmaceutical alternatives, THC provides “considerably superior” fighting power against Alzheimer’s disease. This short study tested medical cannabis oil and its effect on the psychological and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s: it concluded that not only is THC safe, but it proved to be an effective treatment in decreasing “delusions, agitation/aggression, irritability, apathy, sleep, and caregiver distress.”
Do I have to smoke cannabis to treat Alzheimer’s?
There are quite a few different ways to administer medical cannabis. For those who are comfortable with it, inhaling cannabis oil (or even the bud itself) is an efficient way to deliver the healing compounds into your bloodstream quickly. If you smoke or vape cannabis, it takes only a few minutes for your body to begin to respond to it. Feeling the effects of cannabis through edibles, on the other hand, can take up to an hour or two, as the cannabinoids have to make their way through your digestive tract first. There are cannabis tinctures made to be dropped directly under the tongue, where there are hundreds of tiny capillaries (blood vessels) waiting to deliver the medicine directly into the bloodstream. This method usually takes between 15-20 minutes to feel the full effect, although sometimes a bit longer. And that’s only the beginning: medical marijuana can also be taken in capsule form, its medicinal compounds can be absorbed through your skin via transdermal patches, it can be administered by chewing cannabinoid-infused gum, and yes, you can even drink it: cannabis tea has been around for centuries. These days, even cannabis-infused sodas, juices, and coffees are readily available (in states where they are legal).
Is cannabis safe?
Cannabis that is grown specifically for medicinal and therapeutic benefit has been hybridized to contain heavy doses of medicinal cannabinoids like THC and CBD. Each strain of marijuana plant is going to offer a varying ratio of these cannabinoids, and every product on the market is going to be different from one another. The FDA does not consider cannabis or cannabis-derived products to be dietary supplements, therefore they do not regulate the industry in any way, so the first step to having a good experience with medical marijuana is making sure you are using a quality product. Take the time to do proper research: reputable companies will be able to address your questions thoroughly and resolve any concerns. Ask lots of questions and don’t hesitate to consult your medical provider for suggestions.
That being said, there has been no link between marijuana (recreational or medical) and death or injury. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has an updated list of all drug overdose death statistics of the “more commonly used drugs,” complete with detailed charts on heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Nowhere is marijuana, cannabis, or any cannabinoid mentioned, even though on this same website, it states that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug.
Possibly the biggest concern for those considering cannabis as a medical alternative is how it will physically and psychologically affect them. While there is no attainable lethal dose of marijuana, it is possible to ingest or smoke enough to experience some undesirable effects. Dose, potency, administration method, and your body chemistry are all important factors in how THC and CBD might affect you. Frontiers in Pharmacology published an article in 2014 on cannabis as an Alzheimer’s treatment, and addressed concerns regarding potential side effects and risks, first stating that medical marijuana use for Alzheimer’s is completely different than recreational use: “…the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids must be clearly dissociated from the risks of abuse and addiction linked to the recreational use of cannabis derivatives.” It goes on to indicate the importance of dosing, and how a little goes a long way when treating Alzheimer’s. Finally, it made sure to mention that “…the preferred therapeutic cannabinoid combination includes CBD, which is known to mitigate the negative consequences on cognition of THC administration (Fadda et al., 2004), and therefore ensure the avoidance of such undesirable effects.” In short: most patients don’t require high doses of THC in order to reap the benefits of cannabis, and it is actually less intoxicating when combined with non-psychoactive CBD.
What happens if I take too much?
Ingesting or smoking too much THC can make you feel anxious, slow, confused, and perhaps even lethargic. Too much CBD can also make you tired, as well lower your heart rate and make you dizzy. If you feel you’ve had too much, don’t panic: the effects don’t last long. Drink some water (or even eat a snack), lie down, and wait it out. Some people even say that taking a few strong sniffs of black pepper helps take the edge off. The most dangerous side effect found with marijuana use is that it has the potential to metabolize a list of over the counter and pharmaceutical medications. If you are taking any of these drugs, consult your medical provider before introducing cannabis into your treatment regimen.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, beginning the process of considering different treatment options can feel overwhelming. The first step (if you haven’t already) is to find a medical provider that you completely trust, one that can answer your questions candidly and address any of your concerns regarding the disease and treatments. If you are considering cannabis for Alzheimer’s, it is recommended that you discuss these options with your doctor as well, and be sure you understand your local laws regarding medical marijuana. Not all doctors are open to the idea of cannabis as a medical alternative, and that’s okay. But if you are set on wanting to explore your options in this area, it’s best to find a provider who is knowledgeable and willing to listen to how you wish to treat your body. At the end of the day, it’s your body, your brain, and ultimately your choice.
Kymberlee Smith is a writer by day, musician by night, and still finds time to knit sweaters for her dog, Dexter. She is passionate about educating herself and others in regards to medical marijuana and hopes to be a voice in rebranding it along with other alternative methods for medicine. Follow her on Twitter @kymsmithter
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