Anticholinergic drugs may be increasing your risk of dementia
04/24/2019 // Michelle Simmons // Views

Many people still use over-the-counter drugs for treating cold symptoms, such as coughing, headaches, muscle pain, and sleeplessness. However, these drugs are known to have harmful side effects. A study published in the journal JAMA Neurology found a link between over-the-counter anticholinergic drugs and cognitive impairment.

Anticholinergics are drugs used to treat various conditions, such as asthma, dizziness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bladder conditions, digestive problems, and symptoms of Parkinson's disease. They work by blocking the action of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for sending signals between certain cells that affect certain functions in the body.

For the study, a team of researchers at Indiana University looked at the link between anticholinergic drug use and brain function, glucose metabolism, and brain atrophy in healthy older adults. The research team recruited 451 individuals who were 73 years old on average and were drawn from a national Alzheimer's research project -- the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative -- and the Indiana Memory and Aging Study. Sixty of the participants were taking at least one medication with medium or high anticholinergic activity.

The study was stemmed from previous research done by scientists at the IU Center for Aging Research and Regenstrief Institute that found that drugs with a powerful anticholinergic effect cause cognitive problems when taken for 60 days, while weaker anticholinergic drugs cause impairment within 90 days.


The research team evaluated the results of memory and other cognitive tests, positron emission tests (PET) measuring brain metabolism, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans for brain structure of the participants to determine the possible physical and physiological changes that could be linked to the reported effects.

The results of the cognitive tests revealed that participants who took anticholinergic drugs exhibited worse performance than those who do not take the drugs on short-term memory and some executive function tests, which involved verbal reasoning, planning, and problem-solving.

In addition, the research team also found that the former had lower levels of glucose metabolism -- a brain activity biomarker -- in both the overall brain and in the hippocampus, which is the brain area linked to memory. The brain also uses glucose as a fuel source, and a slower glucose metabolism is associated with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. A lower metabolism in brain areas used for memory can also cause memory loss and dementia over time. According to the results of the MRI scans, participants who use anticholinergic drugs have smaller brain volumes and larger ventricles, the cavities inside the brain.

"These findings might give us clues to the biological basis for the cognitive problems associated with anticholinergic drugs, but additional studies are needed if we are to truly understand the mechanisms involved," said Shannon Risacher, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences and first author of the study.

In conclusion, those who regularly consumed one or more anticholinergics were more likely to have dementia and exhibit poorer performance on cognitive tests. They also had smaller brain volumes, compared to those who were not using these types of medicines.

Anticholinergic drugs and other popular drugs found to increase the risk of strokes

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen has also revealed that anticholinergic drugs, hay fever and diarrhea treatments, beta blockers, and painkillers can increase the risk of stroke of the user. They found that those who take common anticholinergic drugs have a 59 percent higher risk of suffering from a stroke and 86 percent higher risk of dying from a stroke. Their study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology and included about 22,000 participants.

Instead of taking OTC cold medicines and risking yourself from their many side effects, try natural cold remedies. You can try taking vitamin C supplements or eating foods rich in the vitamin, drinking tea with honey, eating chicken soup, using aromatherapy, having a steamy shower, and gargling with warm salt water.

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