Warning, These Common Medications May Raise Your Risk of Dementia

If you're taking certain prescription drugs for bladder control, depression, or Parkinson's disease, you may be increasing your long-term risk of dementia, according to a new, groundbreaking study.

Close up hand of old woman holding a pill on black background, concept illness and healthcareAlohaflaminggo/ShutterstockIf you feel like you’re foggy after taking Benadryl, Nyquil, ZzzQuil, Unisom, or other medication that contains diphenhydramine, you’re not imagining it. Known as anticholinergics, these meds can sometimes cause mental confusion. Now, a groundbreaking study published in the British Medical Journal reveals that use of a different group of anticholinergenics—ones that doctors prescribe to treat depression, bladder control problems, and Parkinson’s disease—appear to raise the risk of dementia, even in those who stopped taking the drugs up to 20 years ago. Here are other treatable causes of dementia that you may also want to rule out.

Anticholinergic drugs

Anticholinergic drugs interfere with a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, the study authors explain, and that makes them useful for treating problems involving brain communication. For example, the anticholinergic Toviaz treats bladder control problems by blocking the brain’s messages to make the bladder contract. (Here are options for managing incontinence that don’t require a prescription.) In depression, blocking acetylcholine seems to boost mood. The drawback? Acetylcholine plays a crucial role in memory and learning—which is why doctors hesitate to prescribe this class of drugs to people with existing cognitive problems, such as those with dementia. Those who are dealing with depression but want to avoid anticholinergics may be interested in these other science-backed ways to overcome depression naturally.

How scientists discovered the long-term risk

Researchers at several medical institutions in the UK analyzed data on 40,770 people with dementia between the ages of 65 and 99, comparing their prescription drug history with people of similar ages who didn’t have dementia. The researchers found that people with dementia were more likely to have taken at least one anticholinergic drug during the 20 years before their dementia diagnosis than people without the condition.

Watch for these types of drugs

The riskiest anticholinergics seemed to be those prescribed for depression, Parkinson’s disease, and bladder control; anticholinergics taken for respiratory, gastrointestinal, or other issues—Atrovent for COPD, for example, or scopolamine for motion sickness—didn’t appear to raise a person’s risk for dementia.

How serious is the risk?

The scientists can’t say whether these drugs actually cause dementia. The study authors advise doctors to weigh the long-term risks as well as the short-term risks when prescribing this class of drugs. However: “Anticholinergics, in general, should be avoided in older adults,” reports Medical News Today.

Even Parkinson’s disease can be treated without anticholinergics—check out this researcher’s solution for treating her colleague’s Parkinson’s-related tremors.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.