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Weighing the Risks of Antipsychotics and Medical Marijuana

By Dana LarsenSeptember 26, 2016
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Medicine can be a double-edged sword. While many experience relief from their medications, the side effects can be life-altering, particularly with antipsychotics, medical marijuana and mood stabilizers for seniors.

Atrophy and health changes are a part of aging. With today’s medical advances, there is no question Americans are living longer. However, even though life expectancy has increased, quality of life can be hampered a multitude of side effects from medicines commonly prescribed to seniors. Even medical marijuana, which is becoming more a common treatment for pain relief and mood stabilization, has dosage and other problems.

Being Cognizant of Risks Associated with Medicine

“Quality of life is everything, and having appropriate medications can greatly improve many seniors’ lives.” notes Dr. Leslie Kernisan, Geriatrician and A Place for Mom expert.

“However, research has shown that ‘inappropriate prescribing’ is common in older adults. Meaning that, when patient charts are carefully reviewed, experts often find that seniors are receiving medications that are ineffective, duplicate the effect of another medication, or otherwise lack a basis for being prescribed. Often the combination of medications, not approved by doctors, creates many problems.”

Dr. Kernisan also points out that doctors often see patients during short visits, which can make it hard to think carefully about prescriptions. The healthcare system, after all, wasn’t designed to provide ideal care to people living a long time with chronic illnesses. “Doctors are also humans, not computers, so it can be a challenge for them to keep up with all the latest medical knowledge. Plus, they also just sometimes slip up, as well,” discusses Dr. Kernisan.

The CDC estimates that every year 177,000 older adults visit the emergency room due to medication problems.

Even memory problems can be caused by prescription drugs and medications, so it’s important to be extra careful when it comes to medication combinations and appropriate dosages and practices. Since there are many risks associated with medications, seniors and their family and caregivers need to be extra cognizant of medication side effects and complications.

Weighing the Risks of Antipsychotics and Medical Marijuana


The FDA has warned that treatment with antipsychotic drugs increases the risk of death among elderly patients with dementia, and that some drugs are riskier than others. The medications, which are often used to calm down dementia patients who can become agitated and violent, can negatively affect seniors, even to the point of death. Harvard Medical School instructor Krista Huybrechts, PhD, comments:

“Haloperidol is not used as much as it once was in dementia patients, but it is still used. It is clear that this drug carries and increased risk for death in elderly patients with dementia and should not be used.”

Despite safety concerns issued by the FDA for second-generation antipsychotic drugs, known as atypical antipsychotics, as well as conventional, first-generation antipsychotics, many doctors are still prescribing the medications. Often the drugs are a last resort for patients where non-medical interventions have failed, however, the risks are still there. A study by Harvard University that included elderly new users of antipsychotic drugs in the U.S. between 2001 and 2005 reported these major findings on the antipsychotic drugs, Abilify, Geodon, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel and Zyprexa:

  • Compared to Risperdal users, Haldol users were twice as likely to die from non-cancer-related causes during a six-month observation period, with the largest number of deaths occurring during the first 40 days of treatment.
  • The death rate among users of Abilify (aripiprazole), Zyprexa (olanzapine), and Geodon (ziprasidone) was similar to that of patients who took Risperdal.
  • Users of the second-generation drug Seroquel (quetiapine) had a slightly lower risk for death than users of Risperdal.

Doctors and scientists agree that more studies need to be done, but most agree that newer antipsychotic drugs seem to be safer than older drugs. Still, if preventative measures can be taken to avoid the use of these medications, that is preferable. Be sure to audit medications regularly with your doctor.

Medical Marijuana

The latest cannabis craze is to use medical marijuana to treat a plethora of symptoms, including arthritis, dementia and pain.

In fact, marijuana use doubled among U.S. adults, with polling confirming that Americans age 55 and up are using more marijuana.

However, one study showed that marijuana pills may not ease the common behavioral symptoms that affect people with dementia. WebMD reports that in a trial of 50 dementia patients, researchers found that pills containing the main active ingredient in marijuana were no better than placebo pills in easing aggression, agitation and wandering.

Certainly the demand for a medication to treat dementia symptoms and sleep issues is high. Treating these individual symptoms one-by-one, with medications not specifically intended for dementia, is not an optimal long-term solution. In the search for a comprehensive dementia behavior drug, marijuana has potential, particularly as it carries with it very little known side effects.

However, research needs work in order to prove statistically significant for its broader use as a dementia treatment drug.

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Eastern Medicine Alternatives

Many seniors have turned toward Eastern medicine and preventative health to help ease discomfort and pain, as well as focus on healthy lifestyles.

Acupuncture offers many benefits to seniors, in addition to massage therapy and Chinese herbal medicine. The National Institute of Health reports that alternative medicine can help treat cardiovascular diseases, and acupuncture treats a plethora of problems, including providing benefits to the respiratory system, arthritis, eye disorders, mouth disorders and psychological disorders.

Regular checkups with physicians, fitness regimes and healthy eating are also a natural alternative to drugs. Dr. Kernisan discusses how healthcare is evolving to accommodate an aging population:

“The growing senior population means there’s finally some momentum in expanding senior health services that are designed to meet the special needs of older adults. For quite some time now we’ve had a big body of knowledge in geriatrics — which is the art and science of modifying healthcare so that it works better for older adults.”

So as the population of Americans 65 and older more than doubles, projected to reach 88.5 million by 2050, Americans are beginning to learn more about healthier lifestyle options and problems with prescription medications and other drugs.

Remember that education is king when it comes to weighing the risks of medications compared to long-term health and positive well-being.

What do you think about medication safety and the risks of antipsychotics and medical marijuana? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen