Alzheimer’s disease strikes one in 10 people above the age of 65 as well as approximately 200,000 ages 65 and under in the United States. The most recent statistics show that 5.8 million Americans are currently living with this progressive and irreversible condition. It ranks 5th in cause of death for senior citizens, and can lead to disability and poor health. (1) Studies are showing medical cannabis can help relieve symptoms related to Alzheimer’s as well as slowing the progression of the disease, providing patients with an increased quality of life. If a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, take our short eligibility survey to see if they prequalify to be a medical cannabis patient. At their first appointment, you can discuss available treatment options with one of our Florida Medical Marijuana Doctors
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease experience a decline in memory and their ability to think clearly, eventually becoming unable to communicate or even carry out basic daily activities including self-care. There are 5 stages of this disorder, and some people progress through them more rapidly than others. While some of the following terms apply to patients with non-Alzheimer’s dementia, in this case we are specifically referring to the AD patient.
- Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) – Preclinical AD can last for years, if not decades. During this period, amyloid-beta protein deposits begin to form in the brain. There are no noticeable symptoms; the protein buildup can only be seen via imaging scans.
- Mild Cognitive Impairment – At this stage, symptoms do not yet interfere with relationships or the ability to work. Mild changes in thinking and occur. Patients can also experience trouble with judgement and sound decision-making.
- Mild Dementia – Patients are most often diagnosed at this stage. Family members and doctors begin to notice trouble with thought processes and memory that interfere with normal functioning. Symptoms may include short term memory loss; difficulty organizing and/or expressing thoughts; personality changes; getting lost and/or losing possessions; and struggling with completing complex tasks, problem solving, and making sound judgements.
- Moderate Dementia – As the disease progresses, affected people will become more confused. To fill gaps in their memory, they often repeat their favorite stories or make up new ones. They begin to need increased assistance with daily activities as well as self-care and may require more help choosing appropriate clothing, bathing, grooming and toileting. At this stage, patients can experience personality and behavior changes including restlessness, agitation, unfounded suspicions, and even bursts of physical aggression.
- Severe Dementia – At this point Alzheimer’s has a significant impact on movement, physical activities, and mental function. They may not be able to communicate clearly. Patients require regular help to bathe, get dressed, use the bathroom, and eating. They lose the ability to walk unassisted; as time passes, they need support to sit or hold their head upright; their muscles and reflexes become stiff and unnatural. They eventually lose their ability to swallow or control their bladder or bowel function. (2)
How rapidly the disease progresses can be affected by the stage the patient is in when the disease is discovered. The average lifespan after diagnosis is 3-11 years; some patients survive for 20 years or more. (2)
Can Cannabis Help My Loved One?
A study published in 2016 found THC and other cannabinoids can help reduce amyloid-beta (Aβ) protein levels in brain cells as well as acting to reduce inflammation; CBD plays a particularly important role in combating the inflammatory process. This helps the cells survive instead of being destroyed by the accumulation of these proteins. (3) It has been shown that Δ-9 THC helps prevent the accumulation of Aβ protein in the brain by binding to the sites of another chemical (acetylcholinesterase) critical in the formation of this protein. (4)
Agitation is probably the most difficult symptom for caregivers to deal with. It can cause restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and even outbursts of aggressive behavior. Pharmaceutical drugs have shown little promise in treating AD-based agitation; additionally, the side effects can be harmful or even lead to an increased risk of early patient death. A clinical trial in Canada using a synthetic cannabinoid called Nabilone showed an improvement in these symptoms; in another study, giving Alzheimer’s patients Marinol (another synthetic cannabinoid) not only decreased agitation, but also increased appetite. This is especially important when patients reach the stage where they are no longer interested in eating. (5)
When the brain is stressed by inflammation caused by the buildup of amino-beta plaque, it releases oxygen. The increase in oxygen results in memory impairment and loss in other brain functions. These processes speed up in patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. CBD has been shown to exert antioxidant properties, which can help reverse or even prevent some of the deterioration caused by AD. It also stimulates brain cell growth and development; this slows the decline in mental or other brain functions experienced by the patient with Alzheimer’s. (6)
Cannabis protects nerve cells, stimulates the growth of new neurons, and possesses antioxidant properties. By blocking the deposit of amino-beta protein on nerve cells, it helps slow memory loss and changes in thinking. Cannabinoids can also help patients remain socially functional longer than other drugs. Other studies show an increase in memory function and an improvement in cognitive impairment, which reduces learning difficulties. Cannabinoids help maintain blood flow to the brain – this increases oxygenation, nutrients, and glucose as well as decreasing inflammation and helping remove amino-beta proteins. (7)
BPSD (behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia) include depression, agitation, hallucinations and delusions and may interfere with the ability of caregivers to assist patients with activities of daily living. Dementia related to AD can lead to severe behavior problems. 1:1 preparations of THC/CBD, administered to women in a Swiss study, showed a 40% decrease in behavior problems. Half of these patients were also able to decrease or stop their psychotropic medications. (8)
Anxiety is present at all stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A neurochemical called GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) is responsible for helping balance anxiety levels. CBD oil is known to help manage the amount of GABA in the brain. In addition, cannabis has shown potential in lowering cortisol levels in the brain; this dulls the body’s reaction to stress, which in turn lowers feelings of anxiety. (9,10)
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease struggle with a progressively disabling condition that has no known cure. Medical cannabis can help lessen symptoms, slow the advancement of the disease, and protect undamaged areas of the brain. These benefits will help increase the quality of life for the patient as well as easing the stressors on their caregivers and loved ones. One of our Florida Medical Cannabis Doctors can help you decide on the best product, dose, and route for treating the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s.