If you were 20 years old during the Summer of Love in 1967, you’re about 75 today.
And if you’re using psychedelics, current research doesn’t know much about the special risks and rewards for your generation, according to several scientific experts.
Beckley Foundation Prioritizes Healthy Aging
Amanda Feilding was first introduced to LSD in the mid-1960s, in the first wave of scientific research into psychedelics.
Almost six decades later, the Beckley Foundation she founded advocates for research into psychoactive substances and drug policy reform. Healthy aging is one of the Beckley Foundation’s new research programs, along with mental health, and spirituality and wellbeing.
“The vast majority of psychedelic studies to date have mainly examined their effects on younger people, which means specific research will need to be carried out to ensure their safety in older populations,” Feilding said via email.
“It’s important to do this for a number of reasons. For one, the psychedelics may have different effects on these people,” she said. “We know, for example, that psychedelics affect heart rate and blood pressure.… This is unlikely to be a concern in young people, or with infrequent full doses. However, concerns have been raised over the potential of frequent microdosing to lead to heart problems, and this could be of particular concern in older people.”
“In addition, older people may be already taking a number of prescribed medications for ailments. It’s important that we examine the way psychedelics might interact with these medications,” Feilding added.
Feilding, however, doesn’t just want data on whether psychedelics are safe for her and her generation. She wants to understand how they can help people age better.
“Longer lives do not necessarily mean healthier lives, with those over 65 more likely to have at least one chronic illness and to require expensive, long-term care,” she said. “There is, therefore, a great need for solutions to extend the span of healthy and independent living, and to enable a more inspired manner of dying, like that which can be brought about by psychedelic-assisted therapy for existential suffering, and which can be further complemented by microdosing for palliative care.”
“Our and others’ research have started to unravel the astonishing properties of psychedelics as
promoters of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and also as powerful anti-inflammatory agents,” she added.
Just How Many Older People Use Psychedelics?
It’s hard to say definitely how many older people currently use psychedelics, whether they turned on in the 1960s or came to the substances later. The National Institute on Drug Abuse funds the Monitoring the Future study, a national survey of U.S. adolescents and adults up to age 60 that asks about mind-altering drug use. University of Michigan has conducted the survey for more than 40 years, but does not ask about all drugs among the middle age and older adults who participate.
The extensive drug use and abuse data reported by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health clusters all adults 26 and older into a single category.
Older Users Aren’t Included In Many Studies
Allison Feduccia, a neuropharmacologist and CEO of online provider directory Psychedelic.Support, said many psychedelic studies have an upper age limit of 65 or 70, perhaps due to the potential health risks for those participants – they might be more likely to fall or get confused on large doses of substances, for example, or they might have complicating health conditions.
Feduccia, who was a senior clinical data scientist with MAPS, noted that MAPS didn’t enroll many older participants in its phase 3 clinical trials of MDMA.
Because our metabolism and drug sensitivity can change as we age, research results from younger people might not hold for older people, Feduccia said.
Just as much of the current research doesn’t provide much insight into older people, Feduccia added that most studies don’t typically look at different reactions to substances by gender. Combine those two limitations and there’s a dearth of data on how psychedelics can specifically help women with aging.
Feduccia notes that the serotonin system can interact with the regulation of sex hormones like estrogen, but said studies haven’t explored how psychedelics might help women in menopause, either through hormone regulation or with mood changes.
“There is very little research to know if psychedelic compounds can be helpful,” she said.
Feduccia is interested in how tracking body temperature and sleep pattern changes, as well as digital monitoring of hormone fluctuations in the blood, could lead to adjusting the recommended dose. Since MDMA affects body temperature, for example, could it help modulate hot flashes at some level?
“It’s a really fascinating area of research,” she said.
“I think it’s important to expand who we’re studying,” said Julie Holland, a psychiatrist specializing in psychopharmacology who is a medical advisor to MAPS and emcee of the “Psychedelics in Medicine” track at the annual Horizons conference.
“If someone can tolerate moderate exercise, they can tolerate a psychedelic experience,” Holland said, adding that while MDMA can prompt a mild increase in heart rate and blood pressure, less so with mushrooms, it’s possible to take blood pressure medications in combination to minimize risks.
Psychedelics Could Help with Physical and Emotional Pain in Aging
Holland noted that since psychedelics have been proven to reduce inflammation, they could be helpful for older people’s aches and pains.
“I’m 55 and I’m already noticing things hurt,” she said.
She sees emotional pains in her psychiatric patients, as well.
“The older you get, the more you are doing to have grief and loss and trauma to handle,” Holland said.
She added that the sense of connection to yourself and to others can help with loneliness and isolation, all too common in older people, as well as coming to terms with aging and mortality.
“That’s good for your body and good for your soul,” Holland said.
Holland suggests psychedelics or MDMA could help people have difficult conversations with estranged family or generally prepare for death, like discussing how you want your affairs handled.
“I think if we did have that, there would be less depression and anxiety around death,” she said.
“There may be a whole new field here,” Holland said about aging issues. “It’s totally worth researching.”
Self-Reporting Invites in Older Psychedelics Users
Pamela Kryskow, a medical doctor and Canadian Psychedelic Association board member, was part of a team that recently published a paper on microdosing with the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports – which included the unexpected finding that many people over 50 are microdosing.
“That kind of surprised us,” said Kryskow, acknowledging she expected more young people to take part in the self-reporting they solicited. “Retrospectively, it made a lot of sense.
In my chronic pain practice, it’s people 60 on up coming in asking about microdosing,” Kryskow said. “It’s starting to happen because it’s covered so much in the popular media.”
Kryskow noted that their study covered people who self-reported their microdosing, and said that many of them never would have made it into a traditional study because their health risk factors are too high. But since they made their own independent choices, with no liability to a research institution, Kryskow and her team got insights into their results.
By contrast, she said a leading scientific institution like Johns Hopkins excludes participants based on safety and efficacy concerns. An institutional review board evaluates whether study participants are kept safe as they participate in medical research.
“The people who really need it can’t get in,” Kryskow said. “You’ve got to follow the science but the science doesn’t include everyone.”
Kryskow sees potential for psychedelics helping older people with cognition, like slower word finding, that experience of knowing there’s a word for what you want to say but you need to recall it.
“They just aren’t as sharp and then it comes back,” she said of older people in the microdose study.
Kryskow said there is so much to explore, including what medicine, what dose and what interval could help with conditions associated with aging like neurodegenerative disease as well as with depression, unresolved trauma and navigating retirement.
She added that when she treats patients for chronic pain, it isn’t purely physical, it also has emotional components. Psychedelics are especially well suited to help, she said, because they can treat the physical and emotional level at the same time.
“We’re not a symptom,” Kryskow said. “We’re a person who has a constellation of things and they all interact.”