Combining common medicines can be bad for brain power. Research in Great Britain reveals that older people taking drugs that affect the brain chemical acetylcholine are at higher risk for cognitive decline and even death. The scientists evaluated 80 drugs for their anticholinergic activity, and then assessed how many such drugs 13,000 senior patients were taking. Approximately one person in five taking a combination of such medicines died. They also did worse on cognitive performance. Those patients not taking anticholinergic medications were far less likely to die.
Anticholinergic drugs include antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Dramamine, Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM), antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil) and paroxetine (Paxil), bladder control drugs such as oxybutynin (Ditropan) and tolterodine (Detrol) and the motion sickness medicine scopolamine (Transderm Scop). There are dozens of other medications with this same anticholinergic activity. Older people should ask both their physicians and their pharmacists to review the medicines they are taking to make sure they’re not getting too many anticholinergic drugs.
[Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, online June 24, 2011]
For a list of common anticholinergic medications older people should generally avoid, see our Guide to Drugs and Older People.