Have you been feeling groggier than usual? Do you frequently lose your train of thought or forget common words? Memory loss has a lot of different causes, from lack of sleep to serious brain injury. You may be quick to categorize your symptoms as a problem of old age. But before you do, you ought to check the side effects of your medications.
Unfortunately, many of the drugs prescribed to older patients can cause forgetfulness and mental confusion. As suggested by a 2019 investigation from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), some of the worst offenders are anticholinergic drugs. Anticholinergic drugs block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that regulates automatic functions in the body, such as the contraction of certain muscles.
Acetylcholine-blocking medications are often prescribed to treat urinary incontinence or overactive bladder, but certain kinds can also treat chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPDs) such as emphysema and asthma, Parkinson disease, depression, epilepsy, vertigo, and even allergies.
Evidence That Anticholinergic Drugs Cause Memory Loss
In the 2019 JAMA study, researchers from the UK evaluated the link between anticholinergic drugs and memory loss in over 58,000 dementia patients. The participants were over 55 years old and had to report whether they were on anticholinergic drugs for other health issues.
After adjusting the data for confounding variables that could change the results, such as alcohol consumption and smoking, the research team found that patients on anticholinergic drugs were more likely to suffer from dementia. In fact, the risk of dementia increased by 50 percent. Participants on the strongest anticholinergics, including anti-depressants, drugs for overactive bladder, and epilepsy, were the most likely to have dementia.
Why do these types of drugs cause memory loss? Anticholinergics prevent involuntary muscle contractions in those who suffer from bladder leakage. They also do a good job of treating certain mental illnesses because they inhibit certain activities in the brain. However, acetylcholine is important for learning and memory. Blocking this neurotransmitter can reduce activity in the memory and learning areas of the brain. What’s worse, older adults tend to produce less acetylcholine as they get older, which further depletes their supply.
The Anticholinergic Drugs You Should Worry About
Based on the study findings, you may be at significant risk of developing memory loss or dementia if you are on a strong anticholinergic drug. This risk increases if you are on more than one. Common anticholinergic medications to watch out for include:
- Drugs for incontinence, such as darifenacin (Enablex), oxybutynin (Ditropan XL, Gelnique, Oxytrol), solifenacin (Vesicare), tolterodine (Detrol), and trospium (Sanctura).
- Bronchodilators for asthma and other COPDs, such as ipratropium (Atrovent) and tiotropium (Spiriva).
- Drugs for Parkinson disease, such as benztropine (Cogentin) and trihexyphenidyl (Artane).
- Certain muscle relaxants, such as orphenadrine (Norflex and Norgesic) and tizanidine (Zanaflex).
- Certain anti-depressants, including amitriptyline (under its generic name), clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Silenor), imipramine (Togranil), and nortriptyline (Pamelor and Aventyl).
Some anticholinergic drugs shouldn’t cause any worry, as they didn’t increase the risk of dementia in the study. These include:
- Certain antihistamines, such as fexofenadine (Allegra and Muxinex), loratadine (Claritin), desloratadine (Clarinex), and levocetirizine (Xyzal Allergy).
- Certain gastrointestinal treatments, such as cimetidine (Tagamet) and famotidine (Pepcid, Zantac 360, Act, Dyspep HB, Fluxid, and the generic name).
- Certain bronchodilators, including ipratropium (Atrovent) and tiotropium (Spiriva).
- Certain muscle relaxants, such as baclofen (Lioresal) and methocarbamol (Robaxin).
Ultimately, you may want to ask your doctor about your risk of memory loss if you are on any sort of anticholinergic medication, just to be safe. Your doctor may be able to suggest alternatives that don’t have that side effect.
Other Drugs That Can Cause Memory Loss
Research demonstrates that other drugs can cause memory loss as well. As stated by Dr. Armon B. Neel, Jr., a board-certified pharmacist for AARP, other medications that affect memory include: Anti-anxiety drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, narcotic painkillers, hypertension drugs, certain sleeping aids, and certain antihistamines.
Drugs that treat mental health issues, such as narcotic painkillers, anti-anxiety medications (Benzodiazepines), and sleeping aids (Nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics), tend to affect different brain pathways and block neurotransmitters related to memory.
Drugs that treat high cholesterol (statins) and hypertension (Beta-blockers) do the same. Specifically, statins may lower the brain’s levels of cholesterol, which is essential in forming connections between nerve cells. Beta-blockers interfere with norepinephrine and epinephrine, two key neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate the strength of memory.
If you are on a prescription medication that could be contributing to memory loss, talk to your doctor. Ask your doctor why that specific medication was prescribed and whether alternative options can treat your problem. If you are using an over-the-counter medication that is linked to memory loss, you may be able to wean yourself off it on your own. Just remember that it may be worth your while to speak to a healthcare professional, regardless — to ensure that you are doing things properly. Switching up your medications could improve your quality of life by boosting your mental sharpness.