While it’s not a “normal” part of the aging process, up to 50% of all people over age 85 have some form of dementia, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). So, what’s causing all this memory loss? Researchers have recently identified a potential new risk factor for dementia—and it may be in your medicine cabinet.
A new study from the University of Nottingham in England found that people aged 55 and over who had used strong anticholinergic medications every day for three years or more may be 50% more likely to get dementia. Anticholinergic drugs are those that help to contract and relax muscles throughout the body by blocking a neurotransmitter in the brain, and doctors prescribe them for a range of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bladder conditions, and even depression.
The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at more than 280,000 patients and found a higher risk of dementia in those who use anticholinergic drugs, including anticholinergic antidepressants, Parkinson’s disease drugs, antipsychotic drugs, epilepsy drugs, and bladder drugs. The risk did not increase in people who used anticholinergic antihistamines and gastrointestinal drugs.
Dementia is characterized by a decrease in cognitive function, meaning it can cause issues with thinking, remembering, and reasoning, according to the NIH. There are different causes of dementia, but the most common in older adults is Alzheimer’s disease.
What This Means for You
The study’s results may sound alarming, but are they significant enough to consider going off anticholinergic medications altogether? Yes, say researchers.
“Based on our study along with findings from previous research studies I think there is enough evidence to raise a concern about certain types of anticholinergic drugs, although a definite link is not proven,” says lead study author Carol Coupland, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Nottingham’s Division of Primary Care. “People taking these drugs should talk to their doctors about the risks and benefits of the drugs they are taking, and they might want to consider alternative treatments. It is important though that people don’t stop taking the drugs without consulting their doctor first.”
For example, Dr. Coupland says patients and doctors may want to consider alternative types of antidepressants or other treatments for overactive bladder conditions that aren’t anticholinergics.
While many anticholinergic meds include confusion and memory loss as short-term side effects, researchers looked specifically at the risk of long-lasting, medical diagnosis of dementia in this study. However, since it was an observational study, a cause-and-effect relationship could not yet be confirmed—more research needs to be done.
But in the meantime, it’s worth a serious chat with your doctor if they’ve prescribed you one of these drugs to treat a chronic condition. If the cause-and-effect relationship is confirmed, then around 10% of dementia cases could be attributed to popping anticholinergic pills, which is more than other risk factors, including diabetes, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure.