Preparedness for healthy ageing and polysubstance use in long-term cannabis users: a population-representative longitudinal study

Madeline H. Meier, Avshalom Caspi, Antony Ambler, Ahmad R. Hariri, Hona Lee Harrington, Sean Hogan, Renate Houts, Annchen R. Knodt, Sandhya Ramrakha, Leah S. Richmond-Rakerd, Richie Poulton, Terrie E. Moffitt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: Cannabis is often characterised as a young person's drug. However, people who began consuming cannabis in the 1970s and 1980s are no longer young and some have consumed it for many years. This study tested the preregistered hypothesis that long-term cannabis users show accelerated biological ageing in midlife and poorer health preparedness, financial preparedness, and social preparedness for old age. Methods: In this longitudinal study, participants comprised a population-representative cohort of 1037 individuals born in Dunedin, New Zealand, between April, 1972, and March, 1973, and followed to age 45 years. Cannabis, tobacco, and alcohol use and dependence were assessed at ages 18 years, 21 years, 26 years, 32 years, 38 years, and 45 years. Biological ageing and health, financial, and social preparedness for old age were assessed at age 45 years. Long-term cannabis users were compared using independent samples t tests with five groups: lifelong cannabis non-users, long-term tobacco users, long-term alcohol users, midlife recreational cannabis users, and cannabis quitters. In addition, regression analyses tested dose–response associations for continuously measured persistence of cannabis dependence from age 18 years to 45 years, with associations adjusted for sex, childhood socioeconomic status, childhood IQ, low childhood self-control, family substance dependence history, and persistence of alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drug dependence. Findings: Of 997 cohort members still alive at age 45 years, 938 (94%) were assessed at age 45 years. Long-term cannabis users showed statistically significant accelerated biological ageing and were less equipped to manage a range of later-life health, financial, and social demands than non-users. Standardised mean differences between long-term cannabis users and non-users were large: 0·70 (95% CI 0·46 to 0·94; p<0·0001) for biological ageing, –0·72 (–0·96 to –0·49, p<0·0001) for health preparedness, –1·08 (–1·31 to –0·85; p<0·0001) for financial preparedness, and –0·59 (–0·84 to –0·34, p<0·0001) for social preparedness. Long-term cannabis users did not fare better than long-term tobacco or alcohol users. Tests of dose–response associations suggested that cannabis associations could not be explained by the socioeconomic origins, childhood IQ, childhood self-control, and family substance-dependence history of long-term cannabis users. Statistical adjustment for long-term tobacco, alcohol, and other illicit drug dependence suggested that long-term cannabis users’ tendency toward polysubstance dependence accounted for their accelerated biological ageing and poor financial and health preparedness, although not for their poor social preparedness (β –0·10, 95% CI –0·18 to –0·02; p=0·017). Interpretation: Long-term cannabis users are underprepared for the demands of old age. Although long-term cannabis use appears detrimental, the greatest challenge to healthy ageing is not use of any specific substance, but rather the long-term polysubstance use that characterises many long-term cannabis users. Substance-use interventions should include practical strategies for improving health and building financial and social capital for healthy longevity. Funding: The National Institute on Aging and the UK Medical Research Council. The Dunedin Research Unit is supported by the New Zealand Health Research Council and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e703-e714
JournalThe Lancet Healthy Longevity
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Family Practice


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