Do you believe that you have ever experienced a “mental fog” or disorientation after taking certain medications, like antihistamines? While it may be a normal side effect, it can also come with long-term risks not previously known to scientists.
According to several landmark studies in recent years, certain categories of drugs known as anticholinergics and benzodiazepines have been linked to elevated risks of dementia.
Benzodiazepines include medications for anxiety and sleeping pills, and anticholinergics encompass medications for allergies and colds, depression, high blood pressure, and incontinence. Both drug groups work by blocking chemical messages from the brain to muscles throughout the body.
Today, millions of Americans, up to half of all adult seniors, are believed to be taking related medicines.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type dementia, currently affecting nearly six million adult seniors. Alzheimer’s is also the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Although certain risk factors regarding anticholinergics and benzodiazepines aren’t entirely new, especially among aging adults, what is surprising is that their “loopy” effects appear to be degenerative and permanent in some cases.
“We have known for some time that even single doses of these medications can cause impairment in cognition, slower reaction time, and reduced attention and ability to concentrate,” said Shelly Gray, a lead author of a major national study and a pharmacy professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Initially, “the thinking was that these cognitive effects were reversible when you stopped taking the medication,” Gray said. But she found a link between heavier use of these medications and dementia, “which is a nonreversible, severe form of cognitive impairment.”
Another study published in The BMJ, or British Medical Journal, also linked long-term use of anticholinergic drugs to a higher-risk of dementia later in life, although it ruled out certain antihistamines. The study analyzed more than 27 million physician administered drug prescriptions, and measured them using a scale of 1-to-3. A “1” meant the drug was “possibly anticholinergic,” and a score of “2” or “3” meant the drug was “definitely anticholinergic.”
The robust analysis showed that drugs with a score of 3 that were prescribed for depression, Parkinson’s disease, and loss of bladder control were linked to a higher risk of dementia for up to 20 years “after exposure” to the anticholinergic drugs.
If you are taking any associated medications, you may wish to speak with your doctor for guidance. In all instances, do not wait for an issue to plan forward. Schedule a meeting with your estate planning and elder law attorney while you are physically and mentally well, and take the time to protect yourself and those you love most.