Anticholinergic drugs are dementia medications to avoid if you want to lower your risk of toxicity. Learn more about what these drugs are and how they can negatively affect your brain health.
In this article:
- What Is Dementia?
- What Causes Dementia?
- What Are the Symptoms of Dementia?
- Anticholinergic Toxicity Increases Dementia Risk
- How Anticholinergic Drugs Work in the Body
- Some Warnings in Taking Anticholinergic Drugs
- Foods to Avoid for Your Brain Health
- Healthy Habits You Can Apply to Yourself to Boost Brain Health
Dementia Medications to Avoid: Anticholinergic Drugs
What Is Dementia?
Before we go deeper into knowing the dementia medications to avoid, like anticholinergic drugs, let’s first talk about 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?
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:
- Inappropriate behavior
- Personality changes
- 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
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.
At the same time, 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 dementia medications to avoid 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 are thought to have the opposite effect of medications often used to treat Alzheimer’s, which work to increase acetylcholine.
As mentioned earlier, they can cause drug toxicity. 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
How about loratadine (brand name: Claritin)? Does Claritin cause dementia?
Claritin and dementia risk may not have any relationship because non-sedating antihistamines 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. Precision Medicine (PM) Over-the-Counter (OTC) Painkillers
Most of your favorite over-the-counter drugs cause dementia. 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, and aches due to muscle strain, backache, headache, and fever.
Some of these drugs’ side effects include the following:
- Dry throat, nose, or mouth
- Blurred vision
- Stomach upset
Try to avoid these popular drugs when possible.
3. Overactive Bladder Medications
Unless necessary, 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:
- Trouble sleeping
- Sweating less than usual
- Drowsiness or dizziness
- Blurry vision
- Dry mouth
- 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:
- Dry mouth
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.
6. Nerve Pain Medications
Tricyclics, such as amitriptyline and nortriptyline, are used to treat pain from neuropathy. These dementia medications to avoid 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
- Dry mouth
- Blurred vision
7. Muscle Relaxants
These dementia medications to avoid include 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 that 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.
How Anticholinergic Drugs Work in the Body
It’s important to understand how dementia medications, specifically anticholinergics, work in the body to give you an idea of how it can affect your overall health. It is now clear that anticholinergics block acetylcholine from binding to receptors on specific nerve cells.
This blockage prevents parasympathetic nerve impulses responsible for the movements of the involuntary muscles in the urinary tract, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and other body parts. These nerve impulses have control over mucus secretion, urination, digestion, and salivation.
You can now imagine some of your bodily functions to be negatively affected if anticholinergic toxicity is in your system.
Some Warnings in Taking Anticholinergic Drugs
Like many types of drugs, anticholinergic medications also come with several warnings you should be aware of, on top of being one of the dementia medications to avoid.
1. Conflicting Conditions
Anticholinergic drugs may help treat many health conditions, but these are not for everybody. For one, doctors don’t commonly prescribe these drugs for older adults because these can worsen mental function and cause memory loss and confusion.
Anticholinergic medicines may not be ideal for people who have the following health issues:
- Down syndrome
- Liver disease
- Severe constipation
- Hiatal hernia
- Severe dry mouth
- Heart failure
- Increased heart rate
- Urinary tract blockage
- Enlarged prostate
- Myasthenia gravis
You may want to inform your physician if you have any of these conditions before taking the drugs for treatment.
Myasthenia Gravis Definition: A chronic autoimmune neuromuscular illness causing skeletal muscle weakness, affecting your breathing or limb movement
2. Alcohol and Overdose
Too many anticholinergics in your system can lead to unconsciousness, which can also happen if you take the drugs with alcohol. Overdose of the drugs can lead to the following symptoms:
- Flushing and warmth of the skin
- Fast heartbeat
- Clumsiness and slurred speech
- Trouble breathing
- Severe hallucinations
- Severe drowsiness
These dementia medications can decrease your sweat rate, causing your body temperature to rise. If your doctor prescribes you anticholinergics, keep your body from overheating during hot weather, when taking hot baths, or exercising.
Decreased sweating may increase your risk of heatstroke.
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.
Drinking alcohol may be okay in moderate amounts, but excessive consumption can cause serious and long-term effects on 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.
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, which can lead to cognitive impairment.
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
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
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 a high GI, causing a spike in insulin levels.
A study found that eating a meal with a 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.
Healthy Habits to Boost Brain Health
It’s crucial to remind yourself of the healthy habits for brain health that you can apply to your daily life. Some of these have been mentioned earlier, but we need to discuss each in detail, so you can better understand why each one is essential.
1. Be Optimistic
Being optimistic is a good way to enjoy life. When you think of positive and happy thoughts, your body produces more serotonin, a hormone that creates a sense of well-being, and decreases the production of cortisol, a stress hormone.
You can program yourself to think of happy thoughts every time you wake up in the morning, so you get motivated every day.
2. Try Meditation
Meditation is an effective training program of relaxation for both the mind and body. It exercises your brain and body to strengthen your concentration and focus by performing different physical activities.
You can try enrolling in a yoga class to perform meditation regularly.
3. Play Word Games
Word games are a playful way to exercise your analytical and thinking skills. You can have fun playing Scrabble with family and friends to make it more enjoyable.
You can also play word games during your spare time to exercise your mind.
4. Practice Learning a New Language
Learning a new language can be beneficial for your brain. Adapting new things trains your brain to process new knowledge and turn it into stored information.
You can ask a friend who knows other foreign languages to teach you, or you can try to download apps that teach foreign languages. Learning new languages can be fun because you get to learn about different cultures as well.
5. Take Multi-Vitamins Every Day
Nourishing your brain with the right nutrients is also crucial. Vitamin C, for example, is a powerful antioxidant that your mind and body need to fight free radical damage as you age.
There are many types of supplements you can try on the market today, but before taking any, it’s best to consult your doctor first for proper nutritional guidance.
6. Keep a Daily Journal
Writing your own journal does not only allow you to express your thoughts and feelings, but it also enhances your brain. It lets you look back on what happened during the day and process it in your brain so you can express it creatively on paper.
You can keep it short and simple and only write down the important things that happened.
7. Exercise Every Day
Exercise is good for both mind and body. It raises your heart rate as it lets your body pump more oxygen into the brain, improving cognitive function.
Exercise also helps your body produce plenty of hormones that participate in providing and aiding nourishment in the development of your brain cells.
8. Do One Task at a Time
Your brain cannot function properly if you multitask. You may finish a lot of tasks at the same time, but you feel drained and mentally exhausted after.
By focusing on one task at a time, you can use your brain’s maximum capacity and finish each task properly without feeling fatigued. To accomplish what you should do for the day, determine your priorities and complete them accordingly.
This way, you can successfully concentrate on finishing each task.
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 dementia 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.