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Could Pot End Dementia?

If it does, our world will look very different.

Crawford Kilian 12 May

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

On May 8, the science journal Nature Medicine published an article with a surprising finding: regular low doses of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in mature and old mice (12 to 18 months old) restored their cognitive skills to those of a two-month-old mouse.

THC, of course, is the active component of marijuana, so this study seemed counterintuitive. Scientists are pretty confident that THC messes up the human adolescent brain. Why would it rejuvenate the aging brain?

I’ll admit I’m baffled by the authors’ explanation — something to do with THC’s effect on “CB1 receptor expression.” But let’s take their word for it, and also assume that chronic low doses of THC would have the same impact on old humans. What would the consequences be?

First of all, it would save us all a fortune. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada (ASC), 25,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed in this country every year. An estimated 16,000 Canadians under age 65 are living with dementia; in total, the current number is 564,000 — and by 2031, 937,000 of us will be living with it. The society estimates that we are spending $15 billion yearly to care for persons with dementia. By the 2040s, the cost will rise to $153 billion.

The numbers are proportionately larger in the U.S., according to $236 billion just in 2016, to care for 5.3 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, Americans will likely be spending $700 billion looking after 16 million cases — and that’s not counting the billions being spent to find and produce a cure.

The burden on the caregivers

Those numbers don’t include the free labour of family caregivers, who must contend with the stress of watching their loved ones fade away. According to, caregivers themselves were reporting almost $10 billion in extra health care costs in 2014.

So a cure for dementia would free not only tax dollars but caregivers (who are mostly women). This prospect alone should support a flood of new research money from governments and pharmaceutical companies alike. Even if THC turns out to be only partially effective, it will still lighten a terrible burden. And if it doesn’t work at all with humans, researchers will keep looking for something that does.

But ending dementia would also mean starting a whole new kind of society.

First of all, imagine 25,000 aging Canadians not getting dementia every year. Imagine many of Canada’s half-million current dementia patients recovering from the condition. They might be physically frail, and some disease would eventually kill them. But in the meantime, they’d be quite capable of looking after themselves and their property.

Hospitals could free up as many as 56,000 beds now occupied by dementia patients. Health care workers would be able to tackle new assignments. Nursing homes would go into receivership, or convert to assisted living. Family caregivers could turn their attention to their children and spouses, and their regular jobs.

Grey power rules

Elders would find themselves wielding unexpected power. Seniors always vote in greater numbers than younger cohorts. With more of them highly functional, they’d have even more political clout, and politicians would court them with ever-richer subsidies and ever-cheaper THC. (Universal pharmacare? Just ask.)

Older doesn’t automatically mean wiser. So elder power, exerted selfishly, could deprive working-age and school age cohorts of support they need. They’re the ones supporting the elders, and they deserve our gratitude.

But the younger cohorts will also have what Charles Dickens called “great expectations” — of inherited wealth. As French economist Thomas Piketty has observed, much of the Western middle class has actually become a rentier class: their homes have so inflated in value that for the first time in history they have substantial wealth to pass on to their heirs.

Here in Canada, that amounts to $750 billion just over the next 10 years. In the U.S., the total wealth transfer in total from boomers to Gen Xers and millennials is estimated at $30 trillion. (This will also be a huge windfall for the U.S. government, which taxes inheritances.)

But if 90-something boomers are still living in their own homes and doing their own banking, their aging offspring will have to learn patience. The inheritance will come eventually, but it will likely be the grandchildren and great-grandchildren who benefit from it. If the housing bubble hasn’t popped.

The larger society will also have to deal with a powerful political group whose values were formed in the middle of the 20th century, and who will resist much necessary innovation. Even Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg will be old one day, moaning about newfangled telepathic technology usurping the good old reliable internet.

Meanwhile, the universe will unfold in predictably unpleasant ways. Climate disasters, refugees, pandemics, famines, and the Trump family will test us all, and the elders may have too much 20th-century baggage to deal sensibly with it. At some point the kids may have to overrule great-great-grandma, for her good as well as theirs.

The prospect of dementia scares many more of us old folks than heart attacks or strokes. Better to stay lucid to a sudden end, than to be trapped inside a slowly eroding mind. If only for that reason, THC offers more attraction to the old than it ever offered to us when we were young.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health

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