Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

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Avoiding anticholinergic toxicity is one good way to lower your risk of developing dementia. Learn more about what this is and how it can negatively affect your brain health.

RELATED: Swedish Study: Dementia Skips Fit Folks!

In this article:

  1. What Is Dementia?
  2. What Causes Dementia?
  3. What Are the Symptoms of Dementia?
  4. Anticholinergic Toxicity Increases Dementia Risk
  5. Foods to Avoid for Your Brain Health

Understanding Anticholinergic Toxicity and Dementia

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a general term for a cluster of symptoms that affects a person’s social and cognitive abilities. The condition is severe enough to interrupt daily life.

It’s not a specific illness because various diseases can cause dementia. Although the condition primarily involves memory loss, that alone does not automatically mean you have dementia.

What Causes Dementia?

Neurons brain connections | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

The primary cause of dementia is the loss of or damage to nerve cells and their connections inside the brain. This health condition can affect people differently because dementia can damage certain parts of the brain.

Medical professionals group dementia by what they have in common, like the affected brain area.

Several risk factors can also contribute to developing this condition. Age is one where people who are 65 years old and above are the ones who usually suffer from dementia.

If you have a family history of dementia, you are at a higher risk of having this disease, too.

What Are the Symptoms of Dementia?

The symptoms of dementia depend on its cause, but the following are common signs:

Psychological symptoms:

  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Paranoia
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Personality changes

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Difficulty with motor functions and coordination, organizing and planning, and visual and spatial abilities
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks, problem-solving or reasoning, and communicating or finding words

Anticholinergic Toxicity Increases Dementia Risk

Woman Taking Medication | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

Most of us harbor some nagging fears about the onset of dementia. To reduce the risk, you may take proactive steps like upping physical exercise, playing brain games, and eating certain foods.

But, you should also learn what not to do. There are certain kinds of toxins, such as anticholinergic toxicity, which you should avoid to protect your brain’s health.

These drugs can range from seemingly innocent over-the-counter cold medicines to prescription pain medications. What do they have in common?

They block acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter in the body, which is a mechanism that leads to lower brain function. In fact, research has linked these drugs to increased risk of dementia and also to hospitalizations in older adults.

They actually are thought to have the opposite effect of medications often used to treat Alzheimer’s, which work to increase acetylcholine.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid taking certain drugs, but it’s definitely worth avoiding them if possible when dealing with dementia. Here are seven common types of anticholinergic toxicity.

1. Sedating Anticholinergic Antihistamines

Take heed when you see “diphenhydramine” on the label (brand name Benadryl).

Diphenhydramine is a type of antihistamine that helps reduce the natural chemical histamine effects in the body. Histamine can induce symptoms of runny nose, watery eyes, itching, and sneezing, and doctors prescribe diphenhydramine to alleviate these symptoms.

This antihistamine, however, can provide several side effects, such as the following:

  • “Hungover” feeling in the morning after the previous night’s use
  • Blurred vision
  • Dry eyes
  • Constipation or an upset stomach
  • Dry throat, nose, or mouth
  • Loss of coordination, drowsiness, or dizziness

Non-sedating antihistamines containing loratadine (brand name Claritin) are much safer for the brain. Unlike other types of antihistamine, loratadine does not go into the brain from your blood, which might prevent drowsiness when you take them at prescribed dosages.

2. PM Over-the-Counter (OTC) Painkillers

Most of your favorite OTC painkillers such as Tylenol and Motrin are available in a sedating night-time formula. Additionally, there’s a host of cold and cough meds with night-time formulas.

Manufacturers create these drugs with a combination of two medications: antihistamine and acetaminophen. The latter aids in reducing mild-to-moderate pain, such as flu, cold, aches due to muscle strain, backache, and headache, and fever.

Some of these drugs’ side effects include the following:

  • Dry throat, nose, or mouth
  • Blurred vision
  • Stomach upset
  • Constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness

Try to avoid these popular drugs when possible.

3. Overactive Bladder Medications

Young elegant sad and depressed black afro american woman suffering period pain | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

If possible, avoid bladder relaxants such as oxybutynin and tolterodine. Their anticholinergic activity involves easing symptoms of bladder spasm or an overactive bladder.

Oxybutynin, for example, has some common side effects::

  • Headache
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating less than usual
  • Drowsiness or dizziness
  • Blurry vision
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Being unable to urinate

4. Vertigo or Motion Sickness Medications

Avoid Antivert, which is often prescribed to treat vertigo and motion sickness. It’s also an antihistamine that doctors use to resolve dizziness, vomiting, and nausea caused by motion sickness.

Common side effects of this drug are the following:

  • Tiredness
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Drowsiness

5. Medications for Itching

Like cold and allergy meds, these anticholinergic medicines contain strong antihistamines, which can pose health risks when taken too often, or in unregulated amounts.

RELATED: Low Vitamin D Levels Tied to Dementia

6. Nerve Pain Medications

Back view of man with neck pain and concerned woman at home | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

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Tricyclics, such as amitriptyline and nortriptyline, are used to treat pain from neuropathy. These are antidepressants affecting brain chemicals to relieve depression symptoms.

They can be effective, but they may also pose some common side effects, such as the following:

  • Urine retention
  • Blood pressure drop when sitting to standing
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Constipation
  • Blurred vision

7. Muscle Relaxants

These include drugs such as cyclobenzaprine, and they are often prescribed for back or neck pain. Doctors use these drugs to treat muscle spasticity and spasms, too.

The problem with these medications is they can cause withdrawal symptoms, like hallucinations and seizures. They also depress your central nervous system, making it difficult for you to stay awake or retain focus.

Foods to Avoid for Your Brain Health

Aside from avoiding anticholinergic toxicity, optimizing your diet should also be a priority. You need to watch out for foods that don’t promote brain health.

1. Fish with High Mercury Content

Mercury is a popular heavy metal contaminant that may be stored in animal tissues for a long time. Long-lived predatory fish typically have this, and this is the reason why you need to avoid eating this type of seafood as much as possible.

The primary health effect of this heavy metal is impaired neurological development. It can negatively impact visual, spatial, and fine motor skills, language, attention, memory, and cognitive thinking.

2. Alcohol

Female hand rejecting glass with alcoholic beverage on blurred background | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

Drinking alcohol may be okay in moderate amounts, but excessive consumption can cause serious effects to your health. Frequent alcohol consumption can disrupt your neurotransmitters, cause metabolic changes, and reduce brain volume, all of which contribute to impaired communication.

Heavy one-off drinking episodes or binge drinking can lead your brain to different interpretations of emotional cues than normal. For example, you may have reduced sensitivity to other people’s cues and emotions or increased sensitivity to angry reactions.

3. Aspartame

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener present in many commercial products. Manufacturers make this artificial sugar from aspartic acid, methanol, and phenylalanine.

Aspartic Acid Definition: A non-essential amino acid naturally synthesized in the body and is one of the building blocks of protein.

Phenylalanine can enter the blood-brain barrier, which can interfere with neurotransmitter production. Aside from that, aspartame is a chemical stressor that can raise the vulnerability of the brain from oxidative stress.

4. Highly-Processed Foods

These foods were never good for your overall health because they are full of salt, added fats, and sugar. Several of these foods are as follows:

  • Ready-made meals
  • Store-bought sauces
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Instant noodles
  • Sweets
  • Chips

Highly-processed foods are also low in nutrients and high in calories. One study showed that increased visceral fat is linked to brain tissue damage.

5. Foods High in Trans Fats

Fastfood | Reduce Dementia Risk By Avoiding Anticholinergic Toxicity

Trans fats are unsaturated fat that may prove harmful to your brain health. Trans fats are naturally present in animal products, but these are not the problem.

Those that have undergone industrial processes are of concern. A study revealed that those who consume high amounts of these fats are at higher risk of cognitive decline, lower brain volume, poor memory, and developing Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Refined Carbs

Refined carbs are those highly-processed grains and sugars with a high glycemic index (GI). Your body quickly digests foods with high GI, causing a spike in insulin levels.

A study found that eating a meal with high glycemic load may lead to impaired memory in adults and children. The same study also showed that healthy university students who had a high intake of refined sugar and fat exhibited poorer memory function.

When it comes to brain health, sometimes it’s all about what you don’t do, such as avoiding anticholinergic toxicity and foods that can cause harm to your brain. Take stock of your medicine cabinet now and start checking the labels, your brain will thank you!

Do you have any of the common medications known for anticholinergic toxicity in your medicine cabinet? How long have you been taking them? Share your experience in the comments section below!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 20, 2016, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.