Georgia State study finds long-term Marijuana use increases risk of metabolic syndrome

Researchers at The School of Public Health have found that prolonged use of marijuana increases the user’s risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome pertains to symptoms that increase an individual’s risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other cardiovascular health problems. The study took data from 3,051 adults, aged 20 years and above, who participated in a National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) survey that lasted from 2011 to 2012.

This survey looked at how often participants used marijuana or hashish, with smoking being the main mode of consumption. The study’s lead author, Ph.D. student Barbara Yankey, said the surveys participants were chosen as candidates of her study because the survey provided information that could be used to assess the relationship between long-term marijuana use and developing metabolic syndrome.  

“The NHANES has information on demographics from interviews, physical examinations and laboratory results of participants,” Yankey said. “The 2011 to 2012 NHANES survey was the current completed survey at the time of our study and had unique information for the purpose of our study.”

The study used different measures of diagnosing metabolic syndrome such as high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and high amounts of fat in the blood. This was all done despite the lack of a concrete criteria for diagnosing metabolic syndrome.

The criteria for metabolic syndrome is still not definite,” Yankey said. “Whereas we are unable to give concrete criteria for metabolic syndrome based, our research demonstrates that irrespective of the criteria for metabolic syndrome used, similar relationships are observed.”  

What the researchers observed was a 5 percent increase in odds of having metabolic syndrome with progress in years of marijuana use.

“The results of this study draws our attention to the fact that marijuana use is associated with having metabolic syndrome, and that the longer one uses marijuana, the more likely the metabolic health of the individual is to deteriorate,” Yankey said. “Since cardiovascular diseases are the primary cause of morbidity and mortality globally, it is important to consider the reclassification of marijuana for recreational use among the general populace as well as educate the populace on the effects of marijuana use on health.“

The study did have its limitations, however. Yankey said that since they used self-reports, the  information on marijuana use, which was still considered illicit at the time, may have been under-reported. Because it was a cross sectional study, they were unable to estimate risk by itself.

Ike Okosun, director of the Division of Epidemiology & Biostatistics at Georgia State, co-authored the study and assisted with its design. He said that overall the health effects of marijuana are still murky.

“The debate among scientists about the health effect of marijuana use continues,” Okosun said. “The lack of strong evidence of the true effect of marijuana use on health is driven by research gaps. The need to continue to do a strong and evidenced-based research to inform the public, particularly the youth, is necessary.”

Richard Rothenberg, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Georgia State, was also involved with the study and said that its exploratory nature offers limits to what can be concluded about marijuana’s impact on cardiovascular health.

A single study is rarely conclusive, and a further look with different data and possibly different methods would help,” Rothenberg said.

Chris Sananikone, a Georgia State business major, doesn’t use marijuana recreationally, but he felt strongly about the need to increase efforts to help the public better understand how marijuana impacts their health.

“Most people won’t listen to the data unless it’s made sense to them. ‘Yeah, I can get heart disease from smoking, but everyone says that for everything,’” Sananikone said. “They’re just shooting themselves in the foot with this mindset.”

One Georgia State journalism major, Harry Johnson*, who smokes weed said he smokes two to three times each day. He first tried cannabis when he was in middle school, but became a regular smoker in high school. However, he’s not too concerned about the long term health effects.

“I’m also a smoker [of cigarettes],” Johnson. “I feel those health effects more after smoking both for years.”

Still, he finds value in understanding both the negatives of recreational marijuana and the positives of medical marijuana.

“It goes both ways, because it’s been proven that [medical marijuana] can be beneficial for certain health defects,” he said. “Delving in and researching more is always a great thing because there’s stuff we do that is harming us in some ways and also helping us.”     

Okosun said that college students would benefit from research that illuminates recreational marijuana’s impact on their health long-term.

“The long-term effect of marijuana is yet to be demonstrated,” Okosun said. “Since substance use in youth such [as] college students has the potential to be carried into adulthood, understanding the effect marijuana use can help to educate college students, and hopefully inform their behaviors.

*Names were changed for confidentiality