For anyone who goes to over-the-counter medications to cure allergies or the sniffles, this could be bad news: studies now show that medications like Benadryl can increase your chances for Alzheimer’s or long term memory problems. This also applies to some anti-depressants and sleep aids, among other popular OTC products.
This data is inferred from the idea that acetylcholine, a key chemical messenger in the brain, can’t travel freely within the body when under the influence of some medications, and long term exposure to these medications can result in dementia.
The lead of the study, Professor Shelly Gray of the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, suggests that doctors with elderly or older patients pay attention to both prescribed and over the counter medications more closely to make sure they aren’t at a high risk for symptoms. Although it is understood that medication is an important part of maintaining health during old age, people in their old age tend to take four or five prescription drugs and two over-the-counter drugs each day, which can have a huge long-term impact on the nervous system.
There is also a clear link between the higher doses of medication and dementia. In fact, there was a 45% spike in cases between high-dose users and non-users. In general, anticholinergic drugs can cause drowsiness, forgetfulness of tasks and short-term-memory, and an overall fogginess, but these symptoms can develop into Alzheimer’s if not monitored and controlled.
Throughout the study, researchers identified tricyclic antidepressants like doxepin, antihistamines such as chlorpheniramine, and antimuscarinics for bladder control like oxybutynin as the main culprits of anticholinergic drug use, but there are also sleeping aids and laxatives that contain the same ingredient. Doctors should consider substitutes for these medications whenever possible to reduce the chance of long term memory problems.
Unfortunately, information also leads us to believe that once the damage is done by these medications, there is no way to reverse their impacts on the mind and body. This can lead to a higher risk for dementia even after patients are no longer taking anticholinergic drugs.
While over-the-counter medications can be convenient—and help us out when we’re in a pinch—it is important to talk to our doctors about all the medications we take, both prescription and otherwise, so they can accurately asses our healthcare needs. And with this new information about over-the-counter medication, it might be advised that we revisit our healthcare providers to discuss healthier substitutes available for these products to protect ourselves from memory problems in the long run.