Study finds high rates of marijuana use among Baby Boomers

The recent legalization of recreational marijuana (cannabis) use in California, Colorado, and Washington reflect the sweeping changes in the attitudes and perceptions towards marijuana use in the United States. Eight states have voted in favor of legal recreational marijuana and 26 states in total allow medicinal marijuana.

There is a common misperception that widespread marijuana use is limited to younger generations. However, the Baby Boomer generation has reported higher rates of substance use than any preceding generation.

"Given the unprecedented aging of the U.S. population, we are facing a never before seen cohort of older adults who use recreational drugs," says Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, a geriatrician and health services researcher at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) and in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care at NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC).

"With the increased availability of legalized marijuana, there is an urgent need to understand the prevalence of its use and also its effects among older generations," continued Dr. Han. "The paucity of knowledge in this area constrains the care for a changing demographic of older adults with higher rates of substance use."

To address this, Dr. Han and his team led a study, "Demographic Trends among Older Cannabis Users in the United States, 2006-2013." Published in Addiction, the study sought to determine the trends in the prevalence and patterns of cannabis use, attitudes towards cannabis use, and determine correlates of use among adults over the age of 50.

The researchers evaluated responses from 47,140 adults aged 50 and older in the United States through a secondary analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2006 to 2013. The NSDUH provides national data on the use of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs and mental health in the United States.

The authors found a 71% increase in marijuana use among adults aged 50 and older between 2006 and 2013. Adults ages 65 and older had a significantly lower prevalence of marijuana use compared to those ages 50-64, but prevalence of use increased two and a half times over eight years. Overall, prevalence was higher among men than women through all years.

"We found only five percent of these older adults felt using marijuana once or twice a week was a great risk to their health" said Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, a CDUHR affiliated researcher and an assistant professor of Population Health at NYULMC.

"I thought the perception of low risk was fascinating because, typically, we think of older generations as drug-adverse, and perceiving most drugs to be risky," said Dr. Palamar. "But apparently very few Baby Boomers consider marijuana use risky. But after all, this was the generation who was there, in the late 1960s, when the counterculture revolution exploded marijuana into mainstream popularity."

The researchers note that the majority of self-reported marijuana users indicated they first started using before the age of 18. This means that most of the current users either continued use or have begun using again more recently. Research is needed to determine whether this is related to changes in local, state, and national acceptance.

"Personally, I don't think we need to be very alarmed about most older people who are using marijuana," notes Dr. Palamar, "as our results suggest that only 4% started use after age 35. It is probable that most older users are at least somewhat experienced and are hopefully at reasonably low risk of harming themselves or others after use."

The results, however, give the researchers reason to believe the population may be at a particularly high risk for adverse health outcomes, as the concurrent use of multiple substances (marijuana, prescribed prescription drug, and even self-prescribed illicit drugs) all used in combination may make older adults further vulnerable to poor physical and mental health outcomes and certainly can impact their care.

Dr. Palamar notes that as a public health researcher, "for years we've been worried about the potential effects of marijuana on the developing brains of teens, but now we may need a bit more focus on their grandparents, who are increasingly more likely to be current users."

"Older people may use marijuana for a variety of reasons--including medical reasons--however we need to make sure they are not using in a hazardous manner since older adults may be vulnerable to its possible adverse effects. One particular concern for older users is the risk of falls while using marijuana, however this has not yet been studied," Dr. Han added.

This study underscores the need for further research on marijuana use and its effects in this population. More importantly, the research dispels the myth that older adults do not use recreational drugs. It is the researchers' hope that their study encourages cannabis use questions to become a part of older adults' care plan screenings.

Source: New York University


  1. Ben James Yokel Ben James Yokel United States says:

    I am 60 and have been consuming cannabis off and on since my late teens (over 42 years). I'm a husband, father, electronics engineer, community volunteer, musician and successful business owner. I never drink alcoholic beverages or use tobacco products. I vaporize cannabis (no smoke, no smell, no problems) in the evening after work or on weekends.  I am in excellent health, my memory is perfect and I run 20-30 miles per week and finished my 2nd Marathon May 22, 2016 in 3 hrs, 35 mins.  I am just one of millions of health conscious Americans seeking the least harmful buzz. How long do we have to suffer the lies and ridiculous nonsense from a government whose own data at the CDC shows cannabis nearly harmless by comparison to prescription drugs, tobacco and booze??  

    Center for Disease Control numbers of deaths per year in the USA

    *   Prescription Drugs: 237,485 + 5000 traffic fatalities
    *   Tobacco: 390,323
    *   Alcohol: 88,013 + 16,000 traffic fatalities
    *   Cocaine: 4,906
    *   Heroin: 7,200
    *   Aspirin: 466
    *   Acetaminophen (Tylenol):  179
    *   Marijuana: 0, none, not a single fatal overdose in all medical history and almost no traffic problems.

    So, which is safer????  Enough with the lies, just legalize.

  2. Tim Kahn Tim Kahn United States says:

    its funny  i quit  about 3 years back. im almost 70. and i cant  think why its a crime. its the safest high there is or has been. all it has become is a tax rip off for the states to get fed money . and its sad that 500,000 citizens get busted a year because of the greed . its so less bad then booze or tobacco its a joke to even compare one to the other two. why is it a crime again?

  3. Jon Schleisner Jon Schleisner United States says:

    I have been smoking weed since I was 15,  I am 61,  I hold down a 6 figure job, go to the gym 3 time a week and my pulmonary function is 110% of normal for my age. I have no memory problems... test me test me test me, why don't you arrest me...

  4. Storm Crow Storm Crow United States says:

    I'm 69, a retired educator and championship level quilter and a pretty good genealogist. I have used cannabis for just under 50 years. It PREVENTS my migraines from a head trauma, eases my arthritic hands and lifts my mood. Cannabis also reduces my risk of Alzheimer's, seizures (migraines and seizures can be related), obesity and much more! Cannabis, unlike common aspirin, never kills by overdose and it relieves pain faster than any pill!

    Where cannabis is medically legal, deaths by opiate overdose drop by about 25%. And in a Canadian study, “Substituting cannabis for prescription drugs, alcohol and other substances among medical cannabis patients: The impact of contextual factors” (PubMed – 2015),  they found that “Substituting cannabis for one or more of alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs was reported by 87% (n = 410) of respondents, with 80.3% reporting substitution for prescription drugs, 51.7% for alcohol, and 32.6% for illicit substances.”  

    So 8 out of 10 patients replaced their expensive pills with cannabis! Don't you wonder how many of your pills cannabis could replace? The only pharmaceutical drug I take is thyroid pills- cannabis takes care of all the rest! And I can grow cannabis!

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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