Red flag for common class of drugs and cognitive decline?

A new study suggests a possible link between cognitive decline and anticholinergic drugs, used to treat everything from allergies to depression

Monika Warzecha 2 minute read September 7, 2020
Cognitive issues memory and thinking

A new study is raising red flags about a common class of drugs used to treat everything from colds to depression to high blood pressure and the potential link to thinking and memory problems.

Known as anticholinergics, these drugs are available both by prescription and over-the-counter, and are widely used to treat common ailments like allergies, motion sickness, urinary incontinence, overactive bladder and Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers at the University of California published a study online in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, tracking 688 people with an average age of 74.

The study found that people who took at least one anticholinergic drug were 47 per cent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, which can be a harbinger of dementia, over the next decade compared to people who weren’t taking the meds.

Those with genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease were about 2.5 times as likely to later develop mild cognitive issues compared to participants without the genetic risk factors and who were not taking any anticholinergics.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, about 564,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia. In 15 years, that number will reach 937,000.

“Future studies are needed to see if indeed stopping the use of these drugs could lead to a reduction in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease down the road,” says the study author, Lisa Delano-Wood, of the University of California, San Diego.

“Our findings suggest that reducing the use of anticholinergic drugs before people develop any cognitive problems may be an important way to prevent the negative consequences of these drugs on thinking skills, especially for people who have an elevated risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.”

The participants had no issues with thinking and memory at the start of the study. Within three months of the study, they reported whether they were taking any anticholinergic drugs at least once a week for more than six months. They were also tested once a year on cognitive skills for up to decade. Researchers also adjusted for depression, number of medications being taken, and history of cardiac problems.