There are only two countries in the world that allow TV commercials of pharmaceutical drugs with product claims. The U.S. is one of them. So, it’s no surprise that for many Americans, prescription pills are a part of their daily routine. Although these meds can make you feel better, they also come with a long list of unwanted side effects.
In a recent study published in Neurology, a widely prescribed type of medication called “anticholinergic” have been linked to dementia. This is particularly concerning because these are widely prescribed for allergies, high blood pressure, urinary incontinence, depression, colds, and other medical conditions. Some of these drugs are even sold over-the-counter with no need for a doctor’s prescription.
The researchers from the University of California, San Diego has found that all of these anticholinergic drugs can lead to significant degrees of memory loss and cognitive decline over long periods of time. The link is particularly strong in people who have genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease or markers of this condition.
Increased Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
The study included 688 people at an average age of 74 years and took place over a period of 10 years. The participants were asked if they had taken any anticholinergic drugs within the last three months before the start of the study or at least once a week for more than 6 months. After the start of the study, the participants took cognitive tests every year.
According to the end results, about a third of all participants had taken at least one type of anticholinrgic drug up to an average of 4.7 such drugs per person. The most common drugs were loratadine, metoprolol, atenolol, and bupropion.
At the end of the study, “cognitively normal” people were found to be 47% more likely to develop a mild cognitive impairment if they had taken at least one anticholinergic drug. Such mild impairments are a significant precursor to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
What’s more, the study found that people who already had biomarkers for Alzheimer’s were even more affected by the anticholinergic drugs than “cognitively normal” people – four times more likely, to be precise. For people with genetic risks of Alzheimer’s, the risk had increased by a factor of 2.5 times.
Higher Doses = Higher Risk
Interestingly, the risk of cognitive decline seems to be cumulative, according to this previous study. The more pills you take in a lifetime, the higher your overall risk of developing dementia. Taking a few Benadryls here and there likely won’t affect dementia risk. However, taking them regularly over many years might.
Most Common Anticholinergic Drugs
There are many different types of anticholinergic medications prescribed under different names. Here’s a list of the most common types and their uses:
What does this all mean?
Given that research in this area is still relatively new, the results shouldn’t be viewed as conclusive but should be taken into consideration.
So, until further studies are done to confirm these findings, the logical advice is to try and minimize the use of anticholinergic drugs whenever possible. This goes double (or 2.5 times) for people with genetic predispositions for Alzheimer’s and quadruple for those with biomarkers for Alzheimer’s.
If you or a loved one are on one or many anticholinergic drugs, be sure to talk to your doctor about whether these drugs are the best options available and whether good non-anticholinergic alternatives are available.