The People's Perspective on Medicine

Common Medicines Throw a Monkey Wrench Into Mental Machinery and Memory

Common medications, both OTC and prescription can contribute to memory problems and confusion. Is someone you love taking an anticholinergic drug?

Many people fear a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s more than cancer or heart disease. That’s because we have treatments for the two big killers, but virtually nothing to reverse the inevitable decline of dementia. Anyone who has ever cared for an Alzheimer’s disease knows how devastating it is for the patient as well as the family.

That’s why aging baby boomers often worry about their memory and their mental sharpness. When people have trouble recalling their Social Security number or a familiar person’s name at church, they may become frightened that dementia is around the corner.

Medicines that Mess Up Memory

Alzheimer’s disease is a real risk associated with aging. But common medications can often contribute to confusion or forgetfulness.

Diphenhydramine (DPH) used to be found primarily in a highly sedating antihistamine called Benadryl. At one time, doctors prescribed it for allergy symptoms and warned their patients that it might make them drowsy. It has long been available over the counter.

If DPH were only being used as an antihistamine, it probably wouldn’t pose much of a risk for older people. But this compound is now found in many other medications, particularly in some that are marketed to the elderly. These are nighttime pain relievers such as Advil PM, Aleve PM and Tylenol PM.

The “PM” designation that suggests the drug will cause drowsiness nearly always indicates the presence of DPH. It is also found in a number of OTC sleep aids, such as Sominex, Unisom and ZzzQuil.

Anticholinergic Drugs Can Cause Confusion

Diphenhydramine belongs to a category of medications called anticholinergics. These are drugs that interfere with the activity of the essential brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Drugs with anticholinergic action can cause a number of unpleasant side effects including dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, drowsiness, difficult urination and decreased sweating. They can also cause confusion, memory problems and hallucinations.

The number of medicines that have anticholinergic activity is surprisingly high and often goes unrecognized. The most obvious examples include scopolamine, found in the motion sickness medicine Transderm Scop. It is also found in some medicines for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) such as Donnatal. Other medicines that may be used for digestive tract spasms, atropine and hyoscyamine, also have strong anticholinergic activity.

Overactive Bladder, Incontinence & Brain Fog

Medicines that older people may take more frequently include drugs for urinary incontinence, euphemistically termed overactive bladder. These medications include oxybutynin (Ditropan, Oxytrol) and tolterodine (Detrol). Researchers have reported that oxybutynin has a high incidence of side effects, especially cognitive impairment in older people (International Journal of Clinical Practice, Sept. 2014).

We received this message from a concerned wife:

“My 73-year-old husband is taking Detrol LA. I have noticed that he is often confused about what day it is, does not remember conversations and can no longer keep the check book balanced.”

Another person wrote:

“I’m 55 and experiencing poorer and poorer memory. I’ve had a bladder problem for 25 years. I’ve been on amitriptyline for a long time and Ditropan for eight months.”

It is worrisome that this person is taking two powerful anticholinergic medicines. It’s hardly any wonder she is having difficulty with memory. Amitriptyline (Elavil) is an antidepressant that is also prescribed for nerve pain or insomnia.

Combining anticholinergic medicines can lead to symptoms of dementia. We have a detailed list of anticholinergic drugs at Consult it to protect yourself and your loved ones.


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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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I read with much interest about dementia since my husband’s mother had it, the medication list was very helpful so I printed it to keep track of meds. His dr. prescribes for him. He also sees a cardiologist. Thank-you so much for your precious information.

At 64 and with my mother and her 3 sisters all dying from Alzheimer’s, I thought I was next in line when I couldn’t remember words when speaking or learn new things. I don’t take any medications. Then I took a test for heavy metals, and I had 22 times the amount of lead and 2 times the amount of mercury in my body than is recommended. I’m not sure where the lead came from, but the mercury came from the silver fillings I received as a child and had removed almost 20 years ago. After about 4 months of treatment, the remembering words and learning new things is pretty much but not entirely fixed including a lot of other small but irritating problems that doctors had no answer for.

Please keep reporting on the cognitive effects of taking anticholinergics. The peace of mind they give me comes at a high price – suffering with several types of mental impairment. Feeling “loopy” is the most benign of these. Mental confusion, poor word and name recall, inability to plan effectively or to make a list, and disorientation in time and space are just a few. If I go anywhere without a list, I may not remember all the reasons i am there. I try to space out the days i need to take anticholinergic preparations to give my brain time to recover its normal functioning. The symptoms are very much like those of mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI).

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