How Does THC Affect Dementia?

Sep 05, 2023The nama Team

While heavy THC use may lead to impaired memory, some research suggests that small amounts of THC may have protective benefits against dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other types of neurodegenerative diseases.

How Does THC Affect Dementia?

Some people diagnosed with dementia microdose THC to improve cognition and memory. Meanwhile, heavy THC consumption is linked to poor cognitive performance. The relationship between THC and dementia is complex, but we’re about to get to the bottom of it. 

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What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term for the impaired ability to think, remember, and make decisions. Dementia is not a single disease but a collection of symptoms and diseases caused by abnormal brain changes. 

Dementia brings a decline in cognitive abilities, severe enough to impair daily life and independent function. It also affects behavior, feelings, and relationships.

What are the Symptoms of Dementia?

People living with dementia have two or of the following symptoms:

  • Memory loss is usually the first obvious sign, especially when a person is struggling to recall newly-learned information. This includes forgetting recent events or asking the same questions repeatedly.
  • Challenges in completing familiar tasks—like following a regular recipe or getting lost driving on a familiar route—can arise. Daily activities require greater mental effort.
  • Disorientation is common, such as getting confused about dates, seasons, or passage of time. A person may forget where they are or how they got there.
  • Another early sign of dementia is experiencing language problems like forgetting words or substituting phrases that don't make sense in conversation. Reading and writing skills can also deteriorate over time.
  • Difficulties with visual and spatial processing make it hard for some individuals to interpret images or perform coordinated movements. This particularly affects driving.
  • Social withdrawal and mood changes like depression or agitation frequently occur. Personality shifts related to judgment deterioration can strain family relationships.
  • As dementia advances, loss of impulse control can cause behaviors like aggressive outbursts. Severe memory loss leaves people disoriented about places and times.
  • In late stages, basic tasks like eating, dressing, and bathing require assistance. Language and mobility decline until the individual is bed-bound. People with dementia may require around-the-clock care at this point.

What Causes Dementia?

Dementia risk rises with age. While only 5–8% of people over 65 have dementia, it impacts nearly 50% of those over 85. This is why dementia is considered rare before the senior years but becomes much more common in the elderly population. 

This neurodegenerative condition is caused by damage to the brain. It can also develop when infections or diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, attack the parts of the brain involved in memory, learning, decision-making, or language. In both cases, dementia affects the brain cells, destroying the brain’s ability to communicate with other brain regions. 

Some forms of dementia develop as a result of blocked blood flow to the brain. Deprived of its much-needed oxygen and nutrients, brain tissue dies, leading to cognitive decline and impairment. 

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What are the Types of Dementia?

There are many types of dementia. They are categorized into primary causes, where dementia is the main illness, and secondary causes, where dementia is caused by other medical conditions.

  1. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases. It is characterized by beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain that impair function and destroy brain cells. Early symptoms include memory loss and problem-solving difficulties. Interestingly, all patients with Alzheimer's disease have dementia, but not all dementia patients have the underlying brain changes of Alzheimer's.
  2. Vascular dementia is the second most common type, accounting for about 20% of cases. It is caused when the blood flow to the brain becomes impaired, typically from strokes or small vessel disease. Vascular dementia symptoms often include slowed thinking and trouble with focus and planning.
  3. Lewy body dementia occurs when abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies damage brain cells in areas involving thinking, memory, movement, and behavior. Early signs can include sleep disturbances, hallucinations, and cognitive fluctuations.
  4. Frontotemporal dementia involves damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. The typical first signs of frontotemporal dementia are behavior and personality changes, or difficulty with language and comprehension.
  5. Parkinson's disease dementia develops gradually in people living with Parkinson's disease. 
  6. Huntington's disease is an inherited, progressive brain disorder that leads to dementia symptoms in the later stages. It impacts muscle coordination and causes abnormal movements.
  7. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is often tied to heavy alcohol abuse, which disrupts memory formation and processing. It comes on rapidly and mainly impacts learning new information.
  8. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare and fatal type of dementia. This neurological brain disorder is caused by prion proteins deforming brain tissue. It is characterized by rapid decline in memory, behavior, and coordination.
  9. Traumatic brain injuries can cause dementia. This type of dementia is most often seen in football players, boxers, soldiers, and people involved in a vehicle accident. Dementia symptoms, which appear years later, include memory loss, behavior or mood changes, slurred speech, and headaches.

What Dementia Treatments Are Available?

There is currently no cure for dementia, so treatment focuses on improving symptoms and slowing the rate of decline. Common approaches to improving the symptoms of dementia include:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors, such as donepezil, boost neurotransmitters involved in memory and judgment and temporarily stabilize cognitive abilities.
  • Memantine blocks glutamate receptors that can become damaged and cause brain cell death when overloaded with glutamate. This provides mild improvements, however, they, too, are temporary.
  • Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anti-anxiety drugs help manage mood and behavioral symptoms associated with dementia.

In the absence of definitive treatments to stop or reverse dementia, some individuals have turned to cannabis as a supplementary approach to alleviate symptoms like agitation or to improve appetite and sleep issues

A few studies suggest certain cannabinoids, like Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Delta 9 THC), may also potentially slow dementia progression.

What Is THC?

Tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC or Delta 9 THC, is the primary cannabinoid found in cannabis. At sufficient doses, THC can produce intoxicating psychoactive effects

The way it produces its effects is by interacting with cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system (ECS). You may have never heard of it, but the ECS is a vital part of the central nervous system that helps regulate many important functions like sleep, pain, appetite, and cognitive processing. 

How Does THC Interact With the ECS?

The main receptors in the ECS are CB1 and CB2. 

  • CB1 receptors are mostly found in the brain and central nervous system. They are especially abundant in brain areas important for motor control, memory processing, hunger management, and pain modulation.
  • CB2 cannabinoid receptors are found in cells associated with the immune system and the peripheral nervous system. 

When THC binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors, this interaction stimulates the endocannabinoid system and alters neurotransmitter release in the brain. This disrupts normal communication between neurons and produces the intoxicating and therapeutic effects that Delta 9 THC is known for

Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters THC helps generate by interacting with the ECS and, more specifically, with the CB1 receptor. By stimulating dopamine-releasing signals, Delta 9 THC helps promote feelings of pleasure and produces its intoxicating effects when consumed in sufficient amounts.

Our hemp-derived THC edibles are the smartest way to promote feelings of happiness and mental and physical health. You can choose from a range of potency levels and flavors, but one of our favorites is the strawberry-infused Euphoria gummies. They contain 10 mg of cannabidiol (CBD) and 10 mg of THC, which is well below the psychoactive threshold. 

Because it interacts with the CB1 receptor, THC can produce neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects that may help combat the progression of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia

But this makes the relationship between THC and dementia a tad complicated. Some research on cannabis and dementia indicates that THC could potentially slow neurodegeneration, preserve existing brain cells, and reduce inflammation in people with dementia. 

However, other dementia researchers claim the opposite, that THC may hasten age-related cognitive decline and increase dementia risk. 

So which is it? We’ve objectively examined the available scientific evidence supporting each position, and here’s what we’ve discovered. 

Can High Doses of THC Contribute to Dementia?

High doses of THC may exacerbate dementia symptoms. Several studies have found that heavy consumption is associated with impaired memory, learning, focus, and information processing speed in older adults.

A 2023 case study highlighted the correlation between long-term cannabis use and brain structure and function, eventually leading to dementia. Researchers looked at a 34 year old man with a two-year history of heavy marijuana use. At first, he showed symptoms like apathy and odd behavior. Over time, he developed more severe disinhibition, or loss of impulse control.

Based on his symptoms and brain imaging, doctors diagnosed him as likely having frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The man's young age and lack of other risk factors suggest his marijuana abuse may have contributed to his developing this rare, early-onset dementia.

Cannabis consumption is related to reduced gray matter volume in the medial temporal cortex, insula, temporal pole, orbitofrontal cortex, and parahippocampal gyrus; Regions rich in cannabinoid CB1 receptors and functionally related to emotional, motivational, and affective processing. Another impaired process in the brain of chronic marijuana users is the dopamine deficit, which can also make the picture of FTD pathology. (Moshfeghinia, et. al.)

Chronic THC overstimulation of CB1 receptors can interfere with acetylcholine and glutamate, key neurotransmitters involved in memory consolidation and cognitive functions. This disruption in neurotransmitter activity, combined with THC-induced changes in blood flow and brain activation patterns, may diminish overall brain function over time.

So, it seems that chronic cannabis usage in high amounts may contribute to dementia, which is exactly why we recommend microdosing

Microdosing cannabis means you take small, safe, and well-tolerated amounts of cannabis. Microdosing is associated with a ton of health benefits, including increased focus and concentration, increased “feel-good” hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and potentially slowing cognitive decline. 

Read more about the benefits of microdosing and why small amounts of cannabis compounds may protect brain health.

Can Low Doses of THC Slow Dementia?

A review in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests that giving older animals low doses of THC regularly can help their brains work better. 

There are a number of ways that low-dose THC might be good for your brain:

  • THC may reverse aspects of brain aging and restore cognitive functions like memory, learning, and mood that decline with age. A 2018 study suggests that THC improves neurological function “when administered chronically at low concentrations.”
  • THC and CBD may promote neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells are created in the hippocampus. In a 2018 study, rats treated with low doses of THC showed significant differences in cognitive behavior. Their learning and memory functions were improved, leading to the conclusion that THC can increase hippocampal neurogenesis in adult rats.
  • Low-dose cannabis may improve attention span, concentration, and focus in people with ADHD. This benefit aligns with potential uses for dementia-related attentional deficits.
  • Low-dose THC enhances neuroplasticity and helps dementia patients regain some lost cognitive function.
  • Delta 9 has potent anti-inflammatory properties to counter oxidative stress and inflammation involved in neurodegeneration.

These neuroprotective properties could potentially preserve existing cognitive function and slow the progression of dementia itself. THC also helps stimulate CB1 receptors involved in learning and memory and reduces neuroinflammation and the accumulation of dementia-causing proteins in the brain

Preclinical studies show cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective effects and immense therapeutic potential for neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's dementia. A 2022 study suggests that “CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol have neuroprotective therapeutic-like effects on dementias.”

While THC is the face of cannabis, cannabidiol is the unsung hero, gaining recognition for its own therapeutic superpowers. Discover the potent health benefits of CBD. Also, order our pure CBD edibles to help your brain feel relaxed and rejuvenated. 

THC Helps Reduce Agitation and Aggression in Dementia Patients

Agitation and aggression are common neuropsychiatric symptoms in dementia. They can arise due to the patient feeling confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed by their declining mental state and loss of abilities. This causes them to act out physically or verbally at caregivers or loved ones.

Aggressive outbursts can make caring for dementia patients extremely difficult and even dangerous at times. THC's calming and sedative properties may help relieve these symptoms. By inducing relaxation and euphoria at low doses, THC can ease anxiety, irritability, and restlessness in agitated dementia patients. This allows them to feel more settled and less prone to violent outbursts.

A 2019 study found that cannabis oil can be a well-tolerated and efficient way of treating dementia patients with severe behavioral problems. The patients received an average daily dose of 9 mg THC and 18 mg CBD. After two weeks, they showed a 40% decrease in agitation, aggression, and other problematic behaviors.

Additionally, Mueller and Fixen demonstrated that THC and CBD can effectively and safely reduce agitation in dementia patients. 

THC and CBD are actually quite a pair. When taken together, they demonstrate the so-called “entourage effect.” In the entourage effect, cannabis compounds enhance each other’s individual benefits and create a synergistic, more therapeutic effect: THC enhances CBD's medicinal qualities, while CBD tempers THC's psychoactivity. 

The rich combination of active compounds in full spectrum CBD products leads to more positive outcomes than isolated components alone. Order our full spectrum gummies to experience the ultimate entourage effect and mix two of the most powerful cannabinoids out there. 

THC Alleviated Other Types of Dementia Symptoms

While it cannot reverse dementia or cure it, small amounts of THC and other cannabis compounds can alleviate dementia symptoms like chronic pain, psychological symptoms (e.g., anxiety and depressed mood), disrupted sleep, and wasting. 

  • People diagnosed with dementia frequently experience pain as the disease damages pathways in the central nervous system. Luckily for them, THC has analgesic properties that can help those suffering chronic discomfort. 
  • Anxiety and depression arise in dementia patients as they struggle with declining cognitive abilities and a loss of independence. THC may lift mood and provide calming effects without heavily sedating patients like other anxiety medications might.
  • Dementia patients often experience disruptions to their circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles, leading to agitation and restlessness at night (sundowning). Restorative sleep is crucial for clearing metabolic waste from the brain and preserving cognitive function as dementia progresses. THC's sedating qualities can help regulate sleep, prevent sundowning behavior, and reduce nighttime wandering. 
  • Wasting and appetite loss stem from dementia's effects on the brain regions that regulate hunger. THC can stimulate appetite by interacting with the endocannabinoid system, which is also involved in food intake and energy balance.

While more research is still needed, this evidence for cannabis and dementia is extremely promising. THC appears uniquely equipped to tackle both the behavioral disruptions and underlying neural degeneration of dementia. Its neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and neurotransmitter-balancing properties provide comprehensive support for the complex needs of the dementia brain. 

And THC even produces greater therapeutic relief for dementia and other medical conditions when teamed up with CBD. Many of our edibles contain a balanced ratio of THC and CBD to bring out the best of both cannabinoids. We really hate picking sides between these two, so we always choose something like our Euphoria gummies or even our liquid THC drops

With a bit of THC balanced out by non-psychoactive CBD, you can never go wrong. 

Of course, the risks associated with THC mean that dosage must be carefully controlled. High doses of THC can impair memory, coordination, and cognition. Long-term, excessive THC consumption could potentially hasten age-related cognitive decline.

This is why microdosing has emerged as an effective THC delivery method. 

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Why Microdosing Is the Best Option for Dementia 

Microdosing is the practice of consuming very low, sub-intoxicating doses of THC regularly to achieve health benefits without the high. Low doses typically contain 2–10 mg of THC. At this level, you can reap anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective advantages without impairment. 

We created our microdosed edibles to give you the perfect THC starter dose to minimize risks and maximize rewards. You won’t find more than 10 milligrams of pure, hemp-derived Delta 9 in our gummies, while our Buzz drops contain only 2.2 mg of THC and 2.9 mg of CBD. 

How to Microdose THC for Dementia

The best ways to microdose cannabis: THC edibles and THC drinks. Edibles are tasty and convenient, while drinks are a social and fun way to get your microdosing fix. 

If you’re ready to up your THC game, add a few drops of our liquid THC to your favorite non-alcoholic drink. You can get creative and try out all of our recipes for the most delicious THC beverages

Or stick with the traditionally exquisite Pink Lemonade mocktail with a buzzing twist. (All our edibles contain low amounts of THC, so whichever you choose, you’ll be on the right track to improving your health and supporting your brain health.)

Our Pink Lemonade gummies offer sweet escape and a subtle boost in energy and focus. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in THC-infused goodness with these chewy and flavor-packed gummies.

Curious about crafting your own THC-infused beverages? Visit our How to Make THC Drinks page to unlock the secrets of crafting your own cannabis-infused beverages like a pro.

THC and Dementia FAQ

The safety of tetrahydrocannabinol THC for dementia patients, especially those with advanced dementia or severe dementia, is a complex topic. While some studies have explored the potential benefits of cannabinoids for managing certain symptoms of dementia, the excessive use of THC should be approached with caution due to the following factors:

  • Higher doses of THC can lead to some adverse effects, particularly in elderly individuals and those with cognitive impairments. These effects may include increased confusion, anxiety, paranoia, and impaired motor function.
  • Individuals with dementia, including Alzheimer's, may already experience agitation. THC could potentially exacerbate agitation and behavioral disturbances in some cases.
  • THC's psychoactive properties could further impair cognitive function in dementia patients, leading to worsened memory and confusion.
  • The motor impairment caused by THC could increase the risk of falls, which is already a concern in elderly populations.
  • THC might interact with medications commonly used by dementia patients, potentially leading to adverse reactions or reduced effectiveness.

The potential benefits of cannabidiol (CBD) and THC for dementia patients are still being researched. CBD, unlike THC, is not psychoactive and has shown promise in preclinical studies for its potential to reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and neurodegeneration. However, the research is in its early stages, and no definitive conclusions can be drawn about the efficacy of CBD or THC in treating dementia.

There is no evidence to suggest that THC directly removes plaques from the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Plaques, primarily composed of beta-amyloid protein, are a hallmark feature of Alzheimer's disease. While some studies have indicated that cannabinoids might have neuroprotective effects, there is no basis to assume they can diminish plaque.

CBD is generally considered safer than THC due to its non-psychoactive nature. Some studies suggest that CBD might have neuroprotective properties and could potentially help manage symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances in dementia patients. However, individual responses can vary, and it's important to consult with healthcare professionals before giving CBD to dementia patients.

Demential patients can take CBD, but they should do so under the supervision of their primary car physician.

The link between THC and Alzheimer's disease is an area of ongoing research. Some studies suggest that cannabinoids, including THC, might have neuroprotective effects and could potentially influence factors related to the development of Alzheimer's disease, such as inflammation and oxidative stress. 

However, the scientific evidence is not yet conclusive, and more research is needed to understand the potential therapeutic role of THC in Alzheimer's disease.

In all cases, consult with healthcare professionals who are knowledgeable about both dementia and cannabinoid therapies before considering the use of THC or CBD for dementia-related symptoms.

Cannabidiol has shown potential neuroprotective properties in preclinical studies, suggesting it might have a positive impact on certain aspects of cognitive function. However, the idea of CBD reversing memory loss, especially in advanced dementia, is not supported by scientific evidence. While some studies indicate that CBD might have a role in supporting brain health, its precise effects on memory in the context of dementia are still being explored.

Both THC and CBD have been studied for their potential effects in combating Alzheimer's disease. Some research suggests that a combination of cannabinoids, including THC and CBD, might have synergistic effects in addressing various aspects of the disease, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and neurodegeneration. We need more research to determine the optimal cannabinoid ratios and dosages for Alzheimer's treatment.

The potential for THC consumption to lead to substance abuse is a concern, especially in vulnerable populations such as those with a history of substance abuse or individuals with severe dementia. 

Regular or high-dose THC use, particularly in individuals susceptible to addictive behaviors, can potentially increase the risk of substance abuse or dependence. Therefore, cautious and responsible use of THC is essential, especially when considering its use for medicinal purposes.

Cannabis is known to stimulate appetite, a phenomenon often referred to as the "munchies." In this context, cannabis could potentially be used to address appetite loss in certain medical conditions, including eating disorders. 

Cannabis use, especially in the long term, may have other potential effects on mental health and cognitive function that need to be weighed against its potential benefits.

The long-term effects of cannabis use, including both natural and synthetic cannabinoids, are complex and can vary depending on factors such as individual susceptibility, dosage, frequency of use, and the specific compounds involved. 

While some studies suggest that certain cannabinoids might have potential therapeutic effects, prolonged and heavy cannabis use, particularly when started at a young age, has been associated with potential risks. These risks can include cognitive impairment, an increased risk of mental health disorders, respiratory issues (if smoked), and potential negative impacts on academic or occupational functioning. 

As the landscape of cannabis research evolves, consult with healthcare professionals before considering long-term cannabis use for any purpose, including alternative treatments for conditions like Alzheimer's.

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Resources

Moshfeghinia, R., Oji, B., Hosseinzadeh, M., Pourfridoni, M., & Ahmadi, J. (2023, June 30). Early onset frontotemporal dementia following cannabis abuse: a case report - BMC Psychiatry. BioMed Central. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-023-04956-w

Costa, A. C., G. Joaquim, H. P., C. Pedrazzi, J. F., O. Pain, A. D., Duque, G., & Aprahamian, I. (2022, November 22). Cannabinoids in Late Life Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia: Biological Pathways and Clinical Challenges. PubMed Central (PMC). https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci12121596

Prescription of a THC/CBD-Based Medication to Patients with Dementia: A Pilot Study in Geneva - PubMed. (2019, April 4). PubMed. https://doi.org/10.1159/000498924

Use of Cannabis for Agitation in Patients With Dementia - PubMed. (2020, July 1). PubMed. https://doi.org/10.4140/TCP.n.2020.312

Calabrese, E. J., & Rubio‐Casillas, A. (2018, April 2). Biphasic effects of THC in memory and cognition. European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 48(5). https://doi.org/10.1111/eci.12920

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