A Guide to Dementia and Medical Marijuana

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Every year 10 million people are diagnosed with some form of dementia, and it affects more than 55 million people worldwide. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form, with one in nine people aged 65 and older living with the condition in the U.S. today.

People with dementia experience a wide range of debilitating symptoms that affect their quality of life. Perhaps the most difficult of these is the loss of the ability to recognize loved ones. Agitation, anxiety, nerve pain, diminished motor skills, memory loss, confusion, and a loss of organizational and problem-solving skills are other common symptoms.

Medical marijuana has shown promise not only for helping people better manage their dementia symptoms but also for addressing some key underlying causes in certain forms of the syndrome. That may be a reason why over 72% of states and four U.S. territories have now legalized marijuana for medicinal use as of May 2021.

In this short guide, we’ll take a look at the different types of dementia, marijuana’s many therapeutic compounds, how these compounds interact with your body, and how these interactions have been shown to help positively impact dementia outcomes.

We’ll also reveal our top three best marijuana strains for those interested in using this natural, plant-based therapy to better manage their dementia symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.

A worried senior man looking through his window

Understanding the Types of Dementia

There are ten types of dementia. Each is marked by cognitive decline and accompanied by a decreased ability to regulate physical or emotional responses. Changes in brain proteins play a key role in many forms of dementia, and genetics, health conditions, and lifestyle choices can also help contribute to their onset.

Let’s take a look at how each type of dementia affects people’s mind-body health.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease accounts for between 50%-80% of dementia cases. A growing body of evidence reveals that a buildup of amyloid β-protein and nerve-destroying protein tangles called tau are the key markers of the disease, and they may also be the main underlying cause. Factors that contribute to the condition include age, environmental stressors, genetics, and lifestyle choices.

Because of the progressive damage to brain cells, people with Alzheimer’s experience many debilitating symptoms, including mood swings, confusion about the passage of time, memory loss, and an inability to make decisions or problem-solve. Agitation, frustration, and personality change are also common behavioral shifts that people experience.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies

“Lewy bodies” are abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein in the brain, and these protein clusters are associated with the development of Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB). In DLB, dementia develops first, followed by a loss of motor control. REM sleep disorder often accompanies the disease, and symptoms include visual hallucinations, fainting, memory loss, mobility issues, behavioral change, and difficulty concentrating.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease is very similar to DLB in that it also involves a buildup of Lewy bodies in the brain. It’s associated with the destruction of dopamine-producing nerve cells. Since dopamine is a neurotransmitter that normally helps with motor coordination, memory, and reward signaling, its depletion can lead to muscle tremors and rigidity, slower movements, depression, and balance issues.

Unlike with DLB, the loss of motor skills comes first for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and dementia may follow. Although not everyone experiences this dementia, if they do, it won’t manifest until at least a year after the initial symptoms begin. About 50% to 80% of people with Parkinson’s experience a mild form of dementia, and 20% have a more advanced form.

Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease

A different type of protein called prions is found in the brains of people with Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD), a rare disorder that affects about 350 people in the U.S. each year. These proteins are incorrectly folded over, and they cause other, normal proteins to fold over incorrectly as well. This leads to rapid deterioration of brain functioning. Symptoms include speech impairment, seizures, jerky movements, coma, and ultimately, death.

The causes of CJD are often unknown, but they can be genetic or related to the accidental transfer of prions in medical treatments or the meat industry. There is no known cure.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), sometimes called Pick’s Disease, is estimated to affect between 50-60 thousand people in the U.S. It is marked by abnormal folding of tau proteins in the frontal and sometimes temporal lobes of the brain. In the majority of cases, the cause is unknown, although about 40% of people with FTD have a family history of the syndrome.

Since the lobes it affects are responsible for a wide range of everyday responses and processes, including “executive-level” decision making, FTD is most commonly associated with a decline in social, behavioral, and language skills. Like CJD, there is currently no known treatment or cure.

Vascular Dementia

About a third of people over age 70 have Vascular Dementia, and it accounts for 10% of dementia cases. Lifestyle choices like smoking and conditions such as high blood pressure, stroke, and high cholesterol that lead to blood vessel damage in the brain can deprive it of oxygen and nutrients. When this happens, brain damage can occur.

Symptoms of Vascular Dementia include sudden confusion, hallucinations, loss of bladder control, agitation, reduced problem-solving abilities, and vision loss. Although it can’t be reversed, practicing a heart-healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of developing the condition, and help you avoid further damage to blood vessels.

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Brain injuries, infection, aneurysms, tumors, inflammation, surgical complications, strokes, and meningitis can lead to cerebrospinal fluid building up in the ventricles, enlarging and inflaming them. This is called Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, and it can lead to brain tissue damage.

The most common outside indicators of this syndrome include slower thinking and decision-making skills, speech impairment, an unsteady gait, and bladder control issues. Apathy, headaches, withdrawal, mood swings, and personality changes may also occur. This condition can be treated by draining the fluid or, to a lesser extent, with medication, although these options may not completely reverse the damage.

Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s Disease is an inherited genetic disorder caused by a chromosomal defect. It creates difficulty with walking and moving the head, legs, and arms. Issues with depression, proper judgment, agitation, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and speech are also common. Some people have thoughts of suicide.

People are usually diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease between the ages of 30–50 and may live a normal length of life if symptoms are correctly managed with counseling and physical, occupational, and behavioral therapies. 

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Alcohol abuse that leads to an inability to absorb Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is the key link to Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, although other conditions can cause this nutritional deficiency.

During the ‘Wernicke’ stage, amnesia and short-term memory loss are common, along with a wide, unbalanced walking gait, vision loss or double vision, reduced fine motor skills, and language impairment. If it progresses into the ‘Korsakoff’ phase, memory loss, hallucinations, and an inability to form new memories occur. Although damage is often permanent, sobriety and a balanced, nutritional lifestyle can help people manage their symptoms.

Mixed Dementia

When a person develops two or more types of dementia, this is known as ‘Mixed Dementia’. Alzheimer’s Disease and Vascular Dementia or Lewy Body Dementia are the most common combinations, and all three sometimes occur together.

A scientist or medical professional holding a marijuana branch

How Medical Marijuana Helps People with Dementia

The Therapeutic Compounds Found in Marijuana

There are natural compounds found in marijuana that have been shown to mimic or enhance similar compounds that are found in the human body. These compounds are called ‘cannabinoids‘ because they come from the Cannabis Sativa plant.

There are currently over 100 known cannabinoids. The two most common are THC and CBD. THC is the compound in marijuana responsible for the “high” some users experience. CBD, on the other hand, has been shown to help reduce the hallucinogenic effects of THC.

Research has revealed that THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids in marijuana have neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-regulating), antioxidant, and anti-bacterial properties.

How Your Endocannabinoid System (ECS) and Marijuana Work Together

Cannabinoids do their main work through your Endocannabinoid System (ECS). This system is responsible for a whole host of wellness-regulating processes, including:

  • Memory
  • Pain Management
  • Nervous System Regulation
  • Mood Regulation
  • Cognition

Your ECS actually contains its own naturally-occurring signaling agents known as “endocannabinoids” (internal cannabinoids). Although there is a growing list of known endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-AG are the two most common.

The ECS also has two key receptors, known as CB1 and CB2.

The job of endocannabinoids is to bind to, activate, and deactivate these CB1 and CB2 receptors to positively regulate many of your main health processes, and ensure that you stay in an optimal state of wellness.

However, just like with nutrients, these endocannabinoids can become depleted in your body. This can cause your ECS to stop functioning at peak performance, and lead to debilitating health conditions.

The good news is that science has discovered the cannabinoids found in marijuana act in similar ways as your body’s naturally-occurring endocannabinoids to help boost your ECS. Here’s how:

  • THC mainly binds to the CB1 receptor that’s found in higher numbers in the brain and nervous system, and it can also bind to CB2.
  • CBD, on the other hand, does not bind directly to either of these receptors but instead helps inhibit the uptake, breakdown, and deactivation of endocannabinoids. It can also help replenish their numbers in your brain.

A person taking a closer look at some marijuana plants with a magnifying glass

Marijuana’s Multiple Routes to Helping with Dementia

Some promising studies highlight how the therapeutic compounds found in marijuana may help people better manage, and even slow the progression of dementia in some cases.

The Research

Brain proteins are the focus of some of the most groundbreaking research probes into marijuana’s use for the treatment of dementia. A 2017 review in the Journal of Neuroscience found that both CBD and THC were shown to reduce tau protein expression, making them a promising therapy for both Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Frontotemporal Dementia (FD). In addition, THC has been shown to slow the progressive buildup of amyloid β-protein that’s a hallmark of AD. One preliminary study even revealed that CBD prevented the accumulation of the deadly prion proteins found in Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD).

Marijuana has also been shown to have positive effects on the behavioral and mobility issues associated with dementia. A recent European pilot study showed that patients with severe behavioral problems due to dementia had a 40% decrease in these issues after two months when taking an increasing dose of approximately 1:2 THC/CBD. Muscle rigidity also decreased by 50%. In a 2017 International Cannabinoid Research Society study, CBD increased dopamine levels by acting on a receptor called GPR6. This is an exciting finding since lower dopamine levels are the main cause of motor, coordination, and memory issues in people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD).

In addition, the neuroprotective, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties of both THC and CBD were shown to be safe and effective in reducing agitation in dementia patients over some studies, although more research is needed. In contrast, it was reported that the standard dementia medications had “unwanted” side effects.

For people with Vascular Dementia, research into CBD reveals it can elevate anandamide levels, which may lower your blood pressure to improve heart health and reduce your risk of further damage to blood vessels. Anandamide also regulates moodsleep cycles, and improves cognition. This is why dementia patients may choose medical marijuana to help with anxiety, depression, and even sleep disorders, such as those associated with Dementia with Lewy Bodies.

THC binds to CB1 receptors, just like anandamide, and can therefore trigger similar positive health processes.

Marijuana has also been shown to be effective at pain management, which is especially helpful for those who experience muscle rigidity, tremors, stiffness, and nerve pain. It also shows promise for helping protect cells from dying during the alcohol withdrawal process, which is a necessary step in reducing the progress of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

What Marijuana Strains Work Best for Dementia?

Discover Magazine revealed that marijuana strains with higher levels of THC seem to work best for slowing the progression of age-related dementia. On the other hand, as the above studies reveal, higher CBD levels may work best for the muscle rigidity, tremors, and balance issues associated with PD and other forms of dementia. That’s why we’ve included strains both high in THC and more balanced with CBD on our list. You can learn more about Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid strains here.

If you prefer edibles to smoking marijuana, one great option is to mix these strains with butter and store them in the fridge so you’ll have ‘cannabutter‘ on hand whenever you’re ready to make tasty baked goods and treats.

3 Best Marijuana Strains for Dementia

Platinum Girl Scout Cookies (AKA PGSC or Platinum Cookies)

Here’s a 60/40, Indica-dominant hybrid that contains slightly more CBD (17.3%) than THC (15.8%) so that your buzz isn’t overwhelming, but the effects are still potent. By crossing OG Kush, Durban Poison, and a “mystery” strain rumored to be Cherry Pie, euphoria-inducing PGSC is a mouthwatering berry-candy strain blended to help you better manage your mind-body symptoms, including aiding with relaxation, boosting your mood, reducing pain, and easing anxiety.

Deadhead OG

This high THC strain is a blend of Chemdawg 91 and San Fernando Valley OG Kush that itself contains two of the world’s original ‘landrace’ strains. With over 25% THC, this balanced 60/40, Sativa-dominant hybrid is said to ease the mind and relax the body while providing a blissful buzz. It’s recommended to help regulate sleep, reduce body pain, and ease stress, agitation, and anxiety. Deadhead OG has a strong, pungent smell and a lemon-pine aftertaste.

Orange Cookies

Orange Cookies is a sweet, fruity cross between Orange Juice and Girl Scout Cookies, and is high in three of the aromatic terpenes found in marijuana: caryophyllene, which is also a cannabinoid that binds to CB2 receptors to help reduce muscle aches and pains, soothing linalool, and anti-inflammatory limonene that has been shown to help with depression symptoms. Science reveals terpenes can work with cannabinoids to help boost each other’s health benefits. This uplifting, energizing, yet relaxing strain is great for people with agitation, muscle rigidity, depression, and tremors. Orange Cookies contain 18% THC.

Contact our experts here at Inyo Las Vegas Dispensary today with any questions or concerns you have about finding the right marijuana strain to help you better manage your dementia symptoms. We also offer in-store, curbside pickup, and delivery options for your convenience.

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