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Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy: A New Frontier in Mental Health For Older Adults

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy: A New Frontier in Mental Health For Older Adults

Humans are curious creatures. We’re constantly devising ways to improve our lives and make our world more safe, protecting our health through clean water, nutritious food, improved medical care, and limiting the number of unknown dangers we may encounter. We also have some deep desire to know how things work, what things do, what things taste like, even when they completely alter our perceptions of reality. While we could go into a deep dive about how “what we perceive” is actually an evolutionary adaptation to improve survival, we’ll instead discuss how substances that alter that perception can potentially benefit health and longevity, and even rewire our brains in more favorable ways. 

In the last few decades, we have uncovered some of the mechanisms of psychoactive plants—that is, plants that can alter our perception of ourselves and the world we live in. Contrary to the stigma that these plants have carried in modern history, there seem to be legitimate benefits to their periodic and potentially medically supervised use. While some carry side effects, and as with all things the dosage makes the difference, it’s worth exploring what psychoactive substances are capable of for maintaining cognition, balanced mood, and overall health in the context of an extended lifespan. 

Research is increasingly hinting at the transformative potential of psychedelics, not just in addressing mental health conditions but also in enhancing cognition, emotional resilience, and possibly even longevity. We’ll take a look at the latest findings, shedding light on how these substances could pave the way for a healthier, longer, and more fulfilling life. 

The availability of psychoactive substances varies widely—some are easily accessible, others are legally obtainable but challenging to source consistently, and some are prohibited by law. Prior to acquiring any such substance, consult the legal statutes applicable to your jurisdiction and work with a qualified healthcare professional. 

A Brief Overview of Psychedelic Therapy 

Psychedelic Therapy is an emerging field of research that explores the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, which are substances capable of inducing altered states of consciousness characterized by changes in mood, sensory perception, and thought processes. To clarify, this is not about recreational use or self-medication; it's about controlled, clinical use under the supervision of trained therapists. 

The therapeutic use of psychedelics involves administering these substances in a controlled, safe environment, often combined with psychotherapy. Rather than being used as a daily regimen like most psychiatric medications, psychedelics are typically administered once or a few times in a therapeutic context. 

Psychedelic Substances: Classic and Non-Classic 

Psychedelics are a class of substances known to induce alterations in perception, mood, and cognitive processes. They are often categorized into three main classes: tryptamines (like DMT and psilocybin), lysergamides (like LSD), and phenethylamines (like mescaline). What sets them apart is their ability to act as agonists at serotonin 2A receptors, which are important for regulating mood, cognition, and perception. 

Amanita muscaria, a different type of mushroom than the “magic” psilocybin variety, is technically a deliriant. It is also being studied clinically, and is a hot topic in conversations around microdosing, creativity, flow state, and mental health. 

Psychedelics are broadly categorized into "classic" and "non-classic." Classic psychedelics include substances like psilocybin (found in certain mushrooms), LSD (a synthetic compound), and ayahuasca (a plant-based Amazonian brew). Non-classic psychedelics include ketamine and MDMA (also known as ecstasy), which share similar brain pathways and effects. 

The Science Behind Psychedelic Therapy 

One of the key concepts in understanding the potential of psychedelic therapy is neuroplasticity -- the brain's ability to change and adapt in response to experiences. Mental health concerns that are serious enough to impact how we live our daily lives are often associated with patterns of thought and behavior that become deeply ingrained in our neural pathways. Psychedelics may help by enhancing neuroplasticity, effectively making the brain more receptive to change. 

The Potential Benefits of Psychedelic Therapy 

Preliminary research suggests that psychedelic therapy could be beneficial for a variety of mental health concerns, especially for older adults who have deeply ingrained neural pathways. Will it lead to mystical experiences? It’s possible, and research indicates that those spiritual events can be part of why these therapies are so effective. Here are a few areas where it shows promise: 

The Neuroplasticity Perspective 

Psychedelics are believed to enhance neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to form new connections and rewire itself. As we age, this inherent capacity of the brain naturally declines, potentially leading to cognitive decline and feelings of low mood. Psychedelics, by enhancing the growth of new neural pathways, might help maintain cognitive flexibility and delay age-related cognitive decline. It’s thought that their interaction with serotonin receptors is primarily responsible for this effect, but there are still numerous questions about function. 

Consider this: you’re 90, and just as smart and strong as you were at 50, but it’s harder to learn new things. You may want to set out on a new career path, or pick up a new hobby. Working with a healthcare professional to choose a psychoactive plant extract could open up your potential to learning new skills faster, facilitating the next phase of your journey through life. 

Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy: A New Frontier in Mental Health For Older Adults

Mental Health and Longevity 

There's a strong link between mental health issues and a range of health problems. Conditions that lead to persistently low mood or strong emotional reactions to otherwise normal events can induce physiological changes and contribute to chronic stress and unhealthy habits, all of which can affect lifespan. The therapeutic use of psychedelics may help address these mental health conditions, subsequently improving longevity outcomes. 

Some researchers believe that psychedelics can positively impact nervous system function, shifting our bodies from the sympathetic fight-flight-freeze-fawn state to a parasympathetic rest-digest-socialize state. This is part of the polyvagal theory of emotional wellness, and it may be helpful especially for those who have experienced traumatic events, even in childhood. 

Cardiometabolic Health: A New Frontier 

A growing body of research suggests that psychedelics may have a beneficial impact on cardiometabolic health. Studies indicate that lifetime psychedelic use is associated with lower odds of heart difficulties and blood sugar balance issues, and may have an anti-inflammatory effect as well. While this research is preliminary, it points to the potential of psychedelics in managing cardiometabolic conditions, which are leading contributors to global disease burden. 

Neurodegenerative Decline and Psychedelics 

Neurodegenerative conditions, such as age-related cognitive decline, pose significant challenges to healthy aging. Emerging research suggests that psychedelics may offer potential benefits in this area, thanks to their ability to promote neuroplasticity and reduce inflammation. 

Treatment-Resistant Low Mood 

Low mood is a widespread issue, with nearly half of those affected failing to respond to traditional treatments. However, certain psychedelics, such as ketamine, have shown potential in treating resistant low mood, providing relief in a matter of hours, rather than the weeks or months it can take for conventional treatments to take effect. 

Reactions to Past Traumatic Events 

Strong reactions to triggers that remind a person of a previous stressful or traumatic event is another condition that often proves resistant to current treatment methods. Some studies suggest that MDMA-assisted therapy could be beneficial for individuals with this issue, with a significant number of participants no longer meeting the criteria for a serious condition after treatment. Researchers believe that the rewiring of neural pathways and alteration of neurotransmitter balance is responsible for the change in how a person reacts to memories of this nature. 


Psychedelic therapy may also be effective in breaking addiction. For instance, psilocybin has shown promise in the treatment of substance abuse disorders, including alcohol and tobacco dependence. 

End-of-Life Transitions 

For individuals facing terminal illness, dramatic changes in mood and attitude are common. Small studies have suggested that psilocybin-assisted therapy can reduce fears and improve mood in patients with terminal illnesses. 

Limitations and Challenges 

Despite the potential benefits, psychedelic therapy is not without its challenges. Many of these substances are currently illegal, and research is often hampered by regulatory hurdles. Furthermore, while preliminary studies have shown promise, large-scale, rigorous clinical trials are needed to confirm these findings and fully understand the potential risks and benefits. These kinds of trials are challenging to write, though more researchers are passionately pushing this field farther. 

The Future of Psychedelic Therapy 

With psychedelic research gaining momentum, we're likely to see significant advances in this field in the coming years. The goal is not to replace current treatments, but to expand our toolbox, providing new options for those who haven't benefited from existing therapies or are hesitant at the current treatments available. In some cases, these psychedelic therapies are a callback to our more traditional roots, as these plant medicines have been used by indigenous people for centuries. As we continue to explore the potential of these substances, we must do so responsibly, with a commitment to rigorous science and ethical clinical practice, as well as sustainability and respect for the land and people where they originate. 

Overall, while there's still much to learn, the future of psychedelic therapy looks promising. By continuing to explore these substances in a scientific and thoughtful way, we may be able to unlock new treatments for some of our most challenging mental health conditions. 

Please note: The use of psychedelic substances should always be under the guidance of a healthcare professional. This article is not intended to endorse or promote the use of illegal substances. Always consult with a healthcare provider for treatment options. 


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