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EXCLUSIVE: Scientist Finds Over-the-Counter Drugs Linked to Dementia, Memory Loss

By Alexandra Gratereaux
Posted On May 02, 2016
EXCLUSIVE: Scientist Finds Over-the-Counter Drugs Linked to Dementia, Memory Loss

Grandma Fina was a jubilant and active senior citizen. At 87, she still cooked, cleaned, had her sense of humor, and was an adventure-seeker. She rarely got sick and enjoyed staying abreast of all things trending on her iPad.

That is, until one day she could no longer recall if she took the 10 pills she would take daily. Then she could not remember her kids’ names or if she had eaten. It was as if her memory was slowly fading away. Less than a week later, Grandma Fina was diagnosed with the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and was promptly placed on a variety of medications.

Grandma Fina is a perfect example of someone who, Dr. Shannon Risacher, PH.D., says should stay away from over-the-counter medications—particularly cold medicines—since she and her team of scientists have discovered a direct link to cognitive impairment.

“Drugs that are anticholinergic block the neurotransmitter [acetylcholine] in the brain impairing your memory,” Dr. Risacher told New You exclusively.

Dr. Risacher and her team at Indiana University School of Medicine used brain imaging tools and found that individuals, particularly older people, who often used over-the-counter medications and sleep aids, had significant brain shrinkage. The findings and research done by Risacher and her colleagues were published in the medical journal JAMA Neurology titled “Association Between Anticholinergic Medication Use and Cognition, Brain Metabolism, and Brain Atrophy in Cognitively Normal Older Adults.”

“We have to get away from the idea that over-the-counter meds are not drugs,” said Risacher. “They are drugs and you have to be thinking of these risks.”

For Risacher’s findings, participants were selected from the national “Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative” as well as from the “Indiana Memory and Aging Study.”

A total of 451 participants, who have not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, were involved. Out of those individuals, 60 were taking at least one over-the-counter drug. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and positron emission tests (PET), Risacher and her team measured brain metabolism, brain structure, and other cognitive exams that revealed those often consuming over-the-counter drugs did not perform well when it came to problem-solving, verbal reasoning, and planning exercises.

She also found fewer levels of glucose metabolism in the region of the brain linked to memory function.

So, can a healthy younger person be affected by over-the-counter drugs? According to Dr. Risacher and her findings, the answer is yes. While taking these drugs once in a while may not do any harm, the continued use of them overtime can be detrimental.

“These drugs, they do good things if you take them one time because you have a cold,” Risacher says. “It is the long-term effect that we are seeing. Specifically, the PM ones for sleep,” she adds referring to drugs such as Advil PM and Tylenol PM.

“There is a place for these medications, but it’s important to think about the risks, weight those out, or take a smaller dose. Ask yourself, ‘Am I using the right kind of drug?’”

Dr. Risacher says her next step is to study how over-the-counter drugs may affect the brains of individuals, like Grandma Fina, who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, because according to her findings, the medications in over-the-counter drugs and the medications given to treat dementia, cancel each other out.

“Medications for Alzheimer and Dementia have acetylcholine and increase the [nervous system] neurotransmitter. Over-the-counter drugs are the opposite and decrease the neurotransmitter.”

Dr. Risacher, 34, recalls always having an interest in the brain, and how it functions.

“When I went to college I was interested in studying memory. That always fascinated me,” says Dr. Risacher. “Alzheimer’s, in particular, is the most interesting because it is so progressive and it takes over the brain. It is so devastating and sad for families who suffer the most.”

As a precaution for younger individuals, Dr. Risacher advices using these over-the-counter drugs as a last resort and making sure to get enough Z’s every night.

“My suggestion would be, if you can, avoid them,” says Dr. Risacher. “Sleep is also incredibly important. If you do not get enough sleep that increases your chances of getting dementia.”