Common medications can cause dementia-like symptoms
Medications called anticholinergics are commonly used by older adults. It’s pronounced anti-col-in-er-jik; click to hear it spoken.
These drugs and their side effects can worsen existing Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms or even cause dementia-like symptoms in people without cognitive issues.
Why anticholinergics cause dementia symptoms
Anticholinergics block a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) that’s used for learning, memory, and muscle functions. Think of neurotransmitters as messengers that carry instructions within the brain and from the brain to the rest of the body.
Older adults have fewer of these messengers because our bodies produce less of this neurotransmitter as we age. On top of that, blocking it with drugs makes it even harder for instructions to get delivered.
If instructions aren’t getting delivered, the brain and body won’t be able to work normally. This causes dementia symptoms to worsen or even start showing up in seniors without dementia.
Anticholinergics can increase dementia risk by 54%
Seniors who don’t have Alzheimer’s or dementia still need to be careful of anticholinergic medications.
That’s because these drugs can increase the risk of developing dementia in the future.
A study of adults aged 65+ found that those who took an anticholinergic drug for three or more years (or in high doses for shorter time) had a 54% higher dementia risk.
What are anticholinergics used for?
Common anticholinergic drugs include medications used for:
- Behavior issues (antipsychotics)
- Overactive bladder
- Treatment for Parkinson’s or COPD symptoms
Seemingly harmless over-the-counter medications like antihistamines (like Benadryl) and sleep aids (like Tylenol PM) are also anticholinergics!
Here is a great list of medical conditions and common anticholinergic medications used to treat them. It might not include every single condition or medication, but it helps you start a conversation with your senior’s doctors about the drugs they’re taking.
Side effects from anticholinergic medications
In addition to blocking neurotransmitters (aka messengers), anticholinergic drugs also have side effects.
Common cognitive side effects include:
- Problems with short-term memory
- Problems with reasoning
Common physical side effects include:
- Blurred vision
- Easily overheating
- Dry mouth
- Constipation / urine retention
These can all make existing dementia symptoms worse or make someone without cognitive problems seem like they have Alzheimer’s or dementia.
If your senior is taking anticholinergic medicines
DO NOT start, stop, or change dosage for any medications without talking with your senior’s doctor. Discuss medication concerns with the doctor as soon as possible.
It’s important for a doctor to review all the anticholinergics that are being taken. Because many seniors have multiple health conditions, they may be taking more than one type of anticholinergic medication. That’s where the high doses can come from.
If different drugs are being prescribed by different doctors, ask their primary physician to review the full medication list. This could also be a good time to weed out drugs that are no longer needed.