The following study shows that common over-the-counter drugs widely used for asthma, allergies, and insomnia increase the risk for dementia. While this study is the first to show a dose response — meaning, the more you use anticholinergic medications the greater your risk of developing Alzheimer’s — it also is the first to suggest this higher risk may persist, and may not be reversible, even years after you stop taking these drugs.
“Older adults should be aware that many medications — including some available without a prescription, such as over-the-counter sleep aids — have strong anticholinergic effects,” Dr. Shelly Gray, a professor and director of the geriatric pharmacy program at the UW School of Pharmacy said in a release.
The drugs studied are anticholinergic drugs, which block a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, in the central and the peripheral nervous system. These drugs are available over-the-counter and through prescriptions. Many are used on a regular, long-term basis to treat a variety of medical complaints including:
- allergies and allergic reactions
- motion sickness
- irritable bowel syndrome
- excessive sweating
- urinary incontinence
- smoking cessation
- cough suppressant
- muscle relaxer
- Parkinson’s disease
These drugs include:
- Advil PM
The study showed the risk of dementia rises when these anticholinergic medications are used at higher doses or for longer periods. It is not unusual to find these drugs used in combination, especially with the elderly population. For instance, one individual may be using a sleep aid, an allergy medication, and a medication for depression. If all of these drugs are anticholinergic drugs, the cumulative effect increases exponentially, raising the risk of dementia.
Earlier studies had shown these medications increased the risk of dementia; however, these studies also concluded cognitive decline decreased when these drugs were discontinued. The new study, a more longitudinal study, suggests that years after continuation, the risk of dementia remains higher for people who have used more of these drugs or used them for a longer period of time, suggesting a cause and effect even when the drugs were discontinued years prior to the development of dementia.
The study showed that even low amounts over long periods of time increased the risk of dementia. While the study focused on older adults, what about children and young adults? How many children and younger adults are regularly taking anticholinergic over-the-counter or prescription medications for allergies or asthma? How many adults of all ages are taking anticholinergic over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids?
This should be a wake up call for all of us to remember that medications treat symptoms, not the cause of disease. To get well, to be truly well, we must give the body the nutrients it needs to heal.