By Drs. David Niesel and Norbert Herzog
The recent election was also a referendum on the medical and yes, recreational use of marijuana. Voters in Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine and California approved the recreational use of marijuana; bringing the number of approving states to eight. Florida, North Dakota, and Arkansas will now join others that allow the medical use of it. With chronic marijuana use, questions about its influence on a person's health are being debated. Recently, New Zealanders who chronically used marijuana for 20 years were assessed on their mid-life health. Surprisingly, long-term marijuana use is only associated with periodontal (gum) disease but not with other physical health problems.
The short-term use of marijuana results in memory impairment, decrease in motor coordination along with poor judgment linked to risky behavior. Brain development, in adolescents or young adults, is hindered with long term marijuana use leading to reduced educational success, decreased life satisfaction and achievement. For about 9 percent of adults and 16 percent of adolescents, long-term use of marijuana leads to dependence and can also lead to some psychiatric disorders.
This study followed more than a thousand people from Dundin, New Zealand born in 1972 or 1973 through age 38. They assessed the frequency of marijuana use and dependence at ages 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38. Physical health was measured with lab tests as well as self-reporting at ages 26 and 38. Tests assessed periodontal health, lung function, systemic inflammation, metabolic syndrome, waist circumference, HDL cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, blood pressure, glycated hemoglobin concentration and body mass index. Marijuana use was compared to cigarette smoking and included non-smokers. Only periodontal health was found to be worse in 56 percent of people with 15 or more years of marijuana use. Marijuana use led to periodontal disease by age 26 and it continued to get worse with age. In contrast, tobacco smoking was associated with worse health measures in 8 of 12 categories including periodontal disease, lung function, systemic inflammation and metabolic health. Interestingly, marijuana use was associated with slightly better metabolic health, smaller waist circumference, lower BMI, better HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and glycated hemoglobin concentration. That is despite the popular jokes about marijuana-associated munchies.
These are somewhat unexpected findings with many assuming that long term marijuana use would have more adverse effects. It must be noted that this is one study of a uniform population in a single country only to age 38. It remains to be seen if there are adverse consequences that may appear later in life. It is also important to note that there were no mental function tests. There are other consequences of marijuana use that can affect physical health including impaired driving. As marijuana becomes more readily available, its effects directly on a user's physical and mental health needs to be studied in more detail and its impact on society must also be considered. Though Cheech and Chong made marijuana use a running joke, its impact on individuals and society should be examined more closely.
Medical Discovery News is hosted by professors Norbert Herzog at Quinnipiac University, and David Niesel of the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.