Common Drugs with Surprising Mental Side Effects

by Carol Bradley Bursack Caregiver

Many of us have become aware that prescription medications such as Ativan, Xanax and Klonopin may have serious side effects including memory issues. These drugs, which are generally prescribed for anxiety, can possibly increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease since they are in a class known as anticholinergic drugs. They work by blocking a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine in the nervous system.

Many over-the-counter drugs used for sleep and allergies are anticholinergic drugs as well, a fact that's been well publicized. A recent article on Forbes.com spotlighted OTC drugs with these anticholinergic properties because they are so prevalent. The article states that researchers have yet to prove that anticholinergic drugs actually cause Alzheimer’s. Yet, there is a link that can’t be denied.

It’s not just anxiety and sleep medications that have anticholinergic properties.

For over a year, a good friend of mine called me regularly to talk about her mother’s diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, asking me what the family should be doing to cope. I asked her if her mother was seeing a neurologist. She said yes. I mentioned the fact that for elderly people, drug side effects can cause severe issues that can mimic dementia. She said that the doctor had considered that. I advised my friend the best that I could, considering that I’m not a medical person and we are separated by over 1000 miles. My main contribution was support.

Time went on. My friend’s mother and her family endured a year of emotional anguish as the elderly woman became not only forgetful but what my friend called nasty. The older woman said things to her children that shocked them. Her husband was just barely hanging on. Life was tense for the whole family.

Then, during one medical visit, the doctor decided to take my friend’s mother off of her bladder control medication just to see if that change would make a difference. It wasn’t long before the woman started returning to her cognitively normal self. Needless to say, she and her family are overjoyed. She has now fully recovered. The reason for the dementia symptoms seems to have been that the bladder control drug had anticholinergic properties.

Balance risk and benefit

Bladder control drugs, anti-anxiety drugs, sleep medications and allergy drugs help millions of people lead better quality lives than they would without help. These drugs should not be rejected out of hand. However, doctors and patients alike need to be aware of possible side effects.

In the case of my friend’s mother, since the elderly woman’s urologist had prescribed the bladder control medication it’s easy to understand why her neurologist didn’t look at the drug as a cause for the woman’s cognitive deterioration. But he should have. And I’m sure that he will when he works with future patients.

There are people for whom there is little choice but to prescribe anticholinergic drugs, especially when it comes to anxiety which can be debilitating. As a matter of fact, anxiety can increase our risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Sleep issues and allergies can seriously impact quality of life, as well.

Help your doctor help you by asking questions about every new prescription. If you and your doctor decide that you need the drug despite the risk, work with him or her to find the best dosage for you and be alert for possible effects that can develop over time.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.