Ask the question: “Do stoners live longer?” to a room full of people and you would probably spark a significant discussion. Some would no doubt say yes. Others would reject you with a hard no – and all sorts of testimonials would be presented on both sides of the argument.
Frankly, scientists haven't really assessed how cannabis directly affects human aging. However, there is some evidence to suggest it could help us live longer — and even some suggest the opposite. So let's take a closer look at what science says about cannabinoids and aging. Can cannabis be the elixir of life?
Cannabinoids and Aging: The Latest Findings
A new study has revealed that cannabidiol (CBD), the main non-psychoactive cannabinoid in the Cannabis sativa plant, can extend the lifespan of nerve cells.
Researchers looked at the cannabinoid's effect on the aging mechanisms of C. elegans (also known as the roundworm). They discovered that CBD “prolongs lifespan and saves age-related physiological decline” in the roundworm model.
The study showed that CBD can stimulate autophagy in aging neurons. Autophagy, a defense mechanism in which cells self-digest to "clean up" damaged or dysfunctional cell components, has been shown to decline with age and accelerate aging. This study therefore suggests that CBD has an anti-aging effect – at least in worms!
But what relevance do these findings have to our understanding of human aging?
While no firm conclusions can be drawn about the use of CBD or cannabis in human aging, humans and roundworms actually share surprisingly similar physiological aging characteristics. This makes C. elegans a fairly reliable model for studying aging mechanisms in humans.
In particular, the researchers found that CBD extended neuronal cell life through a similar age-related signaling pathway to humans, involving SIRT1.
Without getting too into the basics of the science, SIRT1 is part of an enzyme family called sirtuins that are heavily involved in regulating our bodies' aging mechanisms. Previous research suggests that sirtuin-like drugs may slow the aging process. If CBD regulates aging through the SIRT1 pathway, as this study suggests, it provides some indication that cannabinoids may also have anti-aging properties in humans.
The study authors concluded that “together these findings point to the anti-aging benefits of CBD treatment… and the potential to improve neuronal health and longevity.” However, unless this can be replicated in diverse human populations – with variables such as body weight, stress levels or other factors contributing to aging – the belief that CBD helps us live longer is just speculation.
Is cannabis the key to a long and healthy life?
Looking beyond this recent study, there is additional evidence suggesting that cannabis compounds may improve our overall health and, in turn, help people live longer.
Inflammation and aging are closely linked. Not only does chronic inflammation put the body at higher risk for damage and disease, but aging has also been linked to immune dysregulation, which causes mild inflammation throughout the body.
Numerous studies have shown that CBD has a potent anti-inflammatory effect. While this has not been explicitly tested in the context of aging, there is reason to believe that CBD could help offset some of the inflammatory processes associated with age.
In addition, there is increasing evidence that both CBD and THC, the main cannabinoids in the Cannabis sativa plant, antioxidant and neuroprotective have properties. Cannabinol (CBN) has also been shown to protect neurons in an aging brain. While more research is needed, these findings suggest that cannabis compounds may have the potential to protect against age-related cellular damage.
Aside from these direct physiological effects, cannabis may even make a more indirect contribution to longevity. Many people use cannabis or CBD as a means to improve sleep quality, reduce stress or relieve anxiety. Since stress and sleep disturbances are known to contribute to inflammation (and thus aging), cannabinoids may contribute to better overall health, which in turn could increase a person's life expectancy.
However, we must also recognize that the use of cannabis is not harmless. Despite its myriad of therapeutic benefits, some studies have suggested that frequent, long-term use may do more harm than good.
Conflicting findings in cannabis research
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the mind-altering molecule in cannabis. It is responsible for the plant's characteristic high and has numerous medicinal benefits, but it is also responsible for many of the adverse effects associated with cannabis.
Cannabis prohibition has resulted in the prevalence of more potent cannabis strains, bred specifically to contain high levels of THC and trace amounts of the more protective cannabinoid, CBD. Therefore, frequent cannabis users are regularly exposed to high levels of THC which, according to research published in 2018, “associated with an increased risk of self-reported health problems by age 50.”
Researchers on the study analyzed data from nearly 10.000 participants who reported cannabis use at various intervals between the ages of 18 and 50 in the past year. They found that long-term cannabis use was associated with more cognitive problems, physical illness, psychiatric problems, and lifelong alcohol and drug problems.
While their findings only show a correlation (not a causal relationship) between cannabis use and ill health, it certainly indicates that frequent, long-term exposure to THC negative consequences, highlighting the need for more research into the exact role cannabinoids play in the aging process.
It is also important to consider how people tend to consume cannabis. Survey data shows that the majority of people who use cannabis do so by smoking, but a recent study suggests that smoking cannabis actually makes you age faster. While these findings can be attributed to smoke inhalation and not necessarily to the plant itself, the study shows that there are many more factors to consider when assessing the effect of cannabis on aging.
Research on the impact of cannabis on aging is still significantly lacking, making it nearly impossible to say whether it can extend our lifespan. Despite recent advances, the evidence points to not – at least not directly.
Due to its anti-inflammatory and now potential anti-aging properties, CBD may have positive effects on our aging cells, but much more research is needed to investigate this in humans. A daily dose of CBD oil certainly has undeniable benefits, but whether it can really help us live longer is still up for debate.