Common Meds and Dementia: How Strong Is the Link?

May 9, 2016   ·   0 Comments

May 9, 2016 — Could your chances of getting dementia depend on what’s in your medicine cabinet?

A new study found that medicines taken by millions for depression, asthma, allergies, and other conditions may raise that risk.

The drugs involved in the study are known as anticholinergics. They work by blocking a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which is crucial for memory. Although this isn’t the first time researchers have looked at this link, the new study looked at about 100 over-the-counter and prescription drugs that work in this way, ranging from the antidepressant Paxil (paroxetine) to the allergy drug Benadryl (diphenhydramine) to the motion sickness remedy Dramamine (dimenhydrinate).

The experts found a strong link between the drugs and dementia, but they didn’t prove the meds directly cause it. WebMD asked the lead researcher on the recent study and an expert on Alzheimer’s disease to help people taking the drugs understand what to know and do.

What did this study actually show regarding these drugs and dementia?

The brains of those people taking the medicine did not work as well as the brains of those not taking them. “We saw an increased risk of getting dementia over time,” says researcher Shannon Risacher, PhD, assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

Older adults who took the drugs had poorer thinking skills than those not taking them, she says. Their brains were also smaller, especially in the areas important for memory and other thinking skills.

The researchers looked at the brains of 451 men and women, with 60 taking one or more of the anticholinergics medicines. Their average age was 73, and they had normal thinking skills and brain volume.

Study participants took the medicines on average for about 7 years.

Overall, the researchers found that those on the medicines were ”four times more likely to develop either mild cognitive impairment [which often develops into dementia] or dementia” than those not taking the medicines. The brain problems developed over a time frame ranging from 6 months to about 8 years, Risacher says.

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