Clinician Article

Safety and tolerability of natural and synthetic cannabinoids in adults aged over 50 years: A systematic review and meta-analysis.

  • Velayudhan L
  • McGoohan K
  • Bhattacharyya S
PLoS Med. 2021 Mar 29;18(3):e1003524. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003524. eCollection 2021 Mar. (Review)
PMID: 33780450
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  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Special Interest - Pain -- Physician
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7


BACKGROUND: Cannabinoid-based medicines (CBMs) are being used widely in the elderly. However, their safety and tolerability in older adults remains unclear. We aimed to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of safety and tolerability of CBMs in adults of age =50 years.

METHODS AND FINDINGS: A systematic search was performed using MEDLINE, PubMed, EMBASE, CINAHL PsychInfo, Cochrane Library, and ClinicalTrials.gov (1 January 1990 to 3 October 2020). Randomised clinical trials (RCTs) of CBMs in those with mean age of =50 years for all indications, evaluating the safety/tolerability of CBMs where adverse events have been quantified, were included. Study quality was assessed using the GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) criteria and Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed. Two reviewers conducted all review stages independently. Where possible, data were pooled using random-effects meta-analysis. Effect sizes were calculated as incident rate ratio (IRR) for outcome data such as adverse events (AEs), serious AEs (SAEs), and death and risk ratio (RR) for withdrawal from study and reported separately for studies using tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), THC:cannabidiol (CBD) combination, and CBD. A total of 46 RCTs were identified as suitable for inclusion of which 31 (67%) were conducted in the United Kingdom and Europe. There were 6,216 patients (mean age 58.6 ± 7.5 years; 51% male) included in the analysis, with 3,469 receiving CBMs. Compared with controls, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-containing CBMs significantly increased the incidence of all-cause and treatment-related AEs: THC alone (IRR: 1.42 [95% CI, 1.12 to 1.78]) and (IRR: 1.60 [95% CI, 1.26 to 2.04]); THC:CBD combination (IRR: 1.58 [95% CI,1.26 to 1.98]) and (IRR: 1.70 [95% CI,1.24 to 2.33]), respectively. IRRs of SAEs and deaths were not significantly greater under CBMs containing THC with or without CBD. THC:CBD combination (RR: 1.40 [95% CI, 1.08 to 1.80]) but not THC alone (RR: 1.18 [95% CI, 0.89 to 1.57]) significantly increased risk of AE-related withdrawals. CBD alone did not increase the incidence of all-cause AEs (IRR: 1.02 [95% CI, 0.90 to 1.16]) or other outcomes as per qualitative synthesis. AE-related withdrawals were significantly associated with THC dose in THC only [QM (df = 1) = 4.696, p = 0.03] and THC:CBD combination treatment ([QM (df = 1) = 4.554, p = 0.033]. THC-containing CBMs significantly increased incidence of dry mouth, dizziness/light-headedness, and somnolence/drowsiness. Study limitations include inability to fully exclude data from those <50 years of age in our primary analyses as well as limitations related to weaknesses in the included trials particularly incomplete reporting of outcomes and heterogeneity in included studies.

CONCLUSIONS: This pooled analysis, using data from RCTs with mean participant age =50 years, suggests that although THC-containing CBMs are associated with side effects, CBMs in general are safe and acceptable in older adults. However, THC:CBD combinations may be less acceptable in the dose ranges used and their tolerability may be different in adults over 65 or 75 years of age.

Clinical Comments

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

Using these products is more widespread than most realize, whether legal or not. An interesting article for, at the very least, patient guidance in those who use cannabinoids, whether the state they reside in has legal access or not.

Special Interest - Pain -- Physician

I am surprised by the degree of intolerance of CBD. My patient population may underplay this aspect.

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