Using medical cannabis does not impair cognitive function in middle-aged and elderly people, according to a new study from the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa.

The researchers found that cognitive function– in areas such as concentration, memory, and learning abilities — of people over 50 taking medical cannabis to relieve chronic pain is no different from that of peers who don’t use the healing plant.

“A growing number of elderly people have been using cannabis in recent years to treat pain. Our study is a first step toward a more accurate evaluation of the risk-benefit balance concerning the use of cannabis among this population,” explain Sharon Sznitman and Galit Weinstein, two of the study’s authors.

Chronic pain affects between 19% and 37% of the elderly population worldwide. Medical cannabis is an increasingly available and effective treatment, but many seniors have been concerned about how it might impact their brain.

“From previous studies, we know that medical cannabis can have long-term effects on the brain when it is consumed at a young age. However, the same effect may not necessarily be found when it is used at an older age,” they explain.

The new study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, Sznitman and Weinstein — with Dr. Simon Vulfsons of Rambam Medical Center and Prof. David Meiri of the Technion — included 125 chronic pain patients over the age of 50 (average age 62), 63 of whom are licensed to use medical cannabis for chronic pain.

All participants completed computerized tests evaluating their psychomotor reactions, concentration and memory, and learning capability.

“Although the patients treated with cannabis had been using it consistently for at least one year, we did not find that their cerebral functioning was poorer than that of individuals of similar age and background diseases,” the researchers emphasize.

“The findings of our study could alleviate concern among physicians in the field of chronic pain, and among older patients suffering from such pain, regarding the possible effect of cannabis on cognitive functioning.”

They said further studies are needed in order to substantiate their findings, including brain imaging and additional means for the evaluation of cognitive function.