Why More Retiring Baby Boomers Are Turning to Cannabis for Pain

Every day from now until 2029, more than 10,000 baby boomers will reach the retirement age of 65. Baby boomers are the generation born between 1946 and 1964 and they’re experiencing the aches and pains of aging.

“One out of every five individuals takes a pill daily to relieve acute aches and soreness,” writes Pamela Palmer, MD, PhD, the director of UCSF PainCARE. Typically, opioids like morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone have been prescribed for a range of painful conditions, but boomers are now turning to newly legal medical cannabis.

The Pains of Aging

As we get older, we suffer from all sorts of pain, including back pain, arthritis, neuropathic pain, post-injury, or surgery pain, along with painful symptoms from everything from cancer to shingles.

“For some patients, pain is straightforward,” Palmer explains. “They have arthritis or other conditions that respond well to prescription anti-inflammatories or a combination of medication and physical therapy, and are back to being active relatively quickly after seeing their physicians. But when pain results from a traumatic event like a car accident, how a patient’s body responds to that incident can be more important than the actual trauma.”

For others, cannabis is an attractive alternative to addictive medications like opioids. In fact, chronic pain is the most common reason that medical cannabis recommendations are written in the United States, and 65% of medical patients use cannabis for chronic pain. Additionally, 3% of baby boomers surveyed reported using cannabis in the last year, and nearly a quarter of the baby boomer population admitted to trying cannabis at least once in their lives.

The Road Back to Cannabis

The baby boomer generation has a storied history with cannabis. The 1960s was a turbulent decade, full of generational conflict, idealism, and the birth of a mainstream counter-culture. Generally, baby boomers came of age during a time of hippies, psychedelic rock music, and widespread cannabis use.

The generation that experimented with cannabis on a wide scale is now approaching retirement age, and returning to cannabis.

From 2015 to 2016, about 9% of Americans between 50 and 64 used cannabis that year, up from 7% in 2013. The same study found that 92.9% of the adults between 50 and 64 tried cannabis before they turned 21, which shows that baby boomers are returning to cannabis after a  multi-decade hiatus.

The Opioid Crisis

Opioids have been a preferred treatment for chronic pain for decades, and have helped many patients find relief in their daily lives. Older adults actually report greater pain relief from daily opioids at lower doses than younger patients.

On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 200,000 people have died in the United States alone from overdoses related to prescription opioids.

According to new research, baby boomers have lower metabolisms that make them more susceptible to addiction, partly due to a decreased ability to break down drugs like opioids, which often increases the risk of overdose.

Baby boomers have increased access to prescriptions and may spend more time alone, which can lead to depression, boredom, and problems with prescription drugs. Unfortunately, boomers are 27% more likely to die from prescription drug overdoses than the succeeding generation (born 1965-1981).

Cannabis has a proven analgesic effect and studies have shown that patients prefer cannabis to painkillers when treating pain. Even at low doses, THC has been found to help block pain receptors.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Studies have shown that 23% of baby boomers use some form of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), and were more likely to report using CAM than pre-boomers.

In addition to their propensity for CAM options, boomers also have more experience with cannabis and recreational drugs than previous generations. The continued adoption of CAM is necessitating a shift in our current models of treatment for older patients, and that now includes cannabis as a medical treatment option.

“The baby boomer generation grew up during a period of significant cultural change, including a surge in popularity of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care and Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health. Additionally, Gallup poll data backs it up; In 1973, 12% of respondents said they had tried marijuana. That number doubled by 1977.

“We’re now in a new era of changing attitudes around marijuana, and as stigma declines and access improves, it appears that baby boomers—many of whom have prior experience smoking marijuana—are increasingly using it,” said Han. “Marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating certain conditions that affect older adults, including neuropathic pain and nausea.”

Cannabis has become a popular alternative to traditional high-risk prescription medications, especially for pain management in older adults.

If you or someone you know is considering using cannabis for pain or replacing prescription opioids with cannabis, please reach out to us to learn more about cannabis as a pain relief solution, and to schedule a consultation at one of our Happy Valley locations.

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