Correction Notice: This article originally appeared on Facebook with the title, “New Study: Many cases of ‘dementia’ are actually side effects of prescription drugs”. It has been updated to “Common Types of Drugs, Like Benadryl Linked to Increased Dementia Risk,” to more accurately reflect the study on which the article is based. The original Facebook title was misleading due to its implication that dementia was declared as a side effect of prescription drugs. The 2015 study in question did not come to this conclusion specifically, but rather only found there to be an increased risk of dementia with chronic use of particular medications.
We wish it wasn’t the case but, unfortunately, memory loss is a hot topic. People have countless questions about brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. What really causes it? Will there ever be a cure? Are there any natural preventatives? How do my other medications that I’m taking affect my risk of such problems?
In fact, there is growing evidence that chronic use of certain OTC and perscription drugs are linked to the development and exacerbation of dementia and its symptoms. We hope to answer these questions and more below. So, if you or a loved one is worried about or currently living with this problem, please keep reading…
How Common Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Most people associate Alzheimer’s with memory loss, one of first and most common symptoms of the disease. On average, the progressive (and currently) irreversible brain disorder starts affecting people after 60 years of age.  However, there are many factors that contribute to an individual’s experience such as their genes, diet, lifestyle habits, and more.
According to Alzheimers.net, there are 44 million people who have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, approximately 5,700,000 of whom are American. Health officials expect that number to rise to 16 million by 2050. And because it’s the sixth leading cause of death in America – the only one in the top 10 that cannot be cured, prevented, or slowed – it demands everyone’s attention. 
10 Early Warning Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
As outlined by the Alzheimer’s Association, they can include: 
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- Memory loss
- Inability to plan things or solve problems
- Difficulty completing simple tasks
- Getting confused about times, dates, and places
- Inability to understand spatial relationships and visuals
- New problems when it comes to speaking or writing
- Forgetting where you put stuff and being unable to retrace steps
- Increasingly poor judgement
- Growing less and less social
- Uncharacteristic changes in mood and personality
How About Dementia?
Not unlike Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, general dementia is also a progressive syndrome that impairs your cognitive function. That is, your ability to think, reason, remember, and behave properly (if at all). Many of the symptoms actually overlap with those of Alzheimer’s disease. 
Growing by 10 million new cases per year, there are around 50 million people worldwide currently living with dementia… According to the World Health Organization, that’s a figure that we expect to hit 82,000,000 by 2030 and 152,000,000. 
Although these numbers are alarming, there are numerous ways to decrease your risk of development Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia – naturally and otherwise. But the possibility of keeping the number of dementia cases to a minimum seems unlikely when so many people are on medications that can increase the likelihood of getting it…
Common Drugs Like Benadryl Linked to Increased Dementia Risk
In March 2015, researchers published a prospective cohort study in JAMA Internal Medicine called “Cumulative Use of Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia.” The University of Washington and Seattle healthcare system, Group Health, conducted the long-term study which tracked 3,434 men and women who were aged 65 and up, and had no dementia when the study began. 
The team accessed every participant’s history of drug use for the previous decade, including both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Over a 7-year timeline, they followed up with all the participants every two years, during which 797 participants developed dementia (637 of whom developed Alzheimer’s disease). 
As researchers looked back on what those 797 individuals took, anticholinergic drugs became the main suspect. The most common anticholinergics participants used were tricyclic antidepressants, first-generation antihistamines, and bladder antimuscarinics. Compared to those who didn’t take anticholinergic drugs, people who did for as little as three years were 54% more likely to develop dementia. 
What Are Anticholinergics?
Usually, these types of drugs are prescribed to treat problems including urinary incontinence, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Anticholinergic drugs’ main purpose is to block the actions and effects of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which causes muscles to contract, activates pain responses and regulates endocrine and REM sleep functions. 
It’s just a natural fact of life – as we age, our bodies’ ability to produce acetylcholine decreases.  Since the brain actually contains many acetylcholine-producing cells, as Harvard editor Beverly Merz highlights, “blocking its effects can deliver a double whammy to older people.” 
If you want to keep your head clear and brain functioning as highly as possible, steering clear of anticholinergic drugs seems ideal. However, it is important to recognize that the long-term study revealed only a small portion of drugs was interfering with cognitive function. So, please discuss with your doctor if you’re thinking of getting off any prescribed medications.
Experiencing Memory Loss? It’s Not Necessarily Alzheimer’s
Although this condition seems similar to dementia, the mental changes that occur in delirium happen within days in comparison to months or years. Another key distinction between these two problems is that with dementia, you maintain consciousness; with delirium, you don’t.
People with depression have likely experienced moments of forgetfulness and disorientation. A simple way to tell the difference between depression and dementia is looking at the timeline… Depressed people become depressed first and experience memory-related symptoms later, whereas people with dementia become depressed as a result of their declining cognitive function.
3) Vitamin B12 Deficiency
This crucial deficiency can lead to pernicious anemia, a rare condition associated with confusion, slowness, apathy, and irritability. If you suspect this is the case, see your doctor as soon as possible to make sure your body can even absorb vitamin B12 properly.
4) Thyroid Disease
Individuals with hypothyroidism will likely exhibit dementia-like symptoms. One of the best things you can do is get a thyroid hormone blood test to determine the best possible treatment.
People who are alcoholic can suffer bouts of confusion and amnesia which can mimic the same experiences as someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Although alcoholism can deteriorate the ability to remember and orientate oneself, abstinence and overcoming addiction can help reverse dementia.
Think You Have a Memory Problem? This Is What You Should Do
Not all memory problems or moments of forgetfulness mean you have dementia! That alone should let you have a sigh of relief. But, if you or someone you think thinks a seemingly small memory problem is getting worse, there are a few things you can try.
First, make an appointment with your doctor and talk about your experience(s) right away. No matter the hold-ups you might have with doctors, they are our best source and can help point us in the right direction.
Second, get some blood tests done to make sure your dementia-like symptoms aren’t being caused by hormone imbalances or nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B12. There might even be some prescription medications that could be causing your cognitive lapses. In that case, simply ask your doctor for more details about the medications you’re taking.
Third, examine your diet and lifestyle habits. This could look like cutting out sugar, eating healthy fats, and getting a bit more daily physical activity. It may be hard to make such habitual changes, but a perfect place to start is right here: 8-Step Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan to Stop Memory Loss Before It Starts.
That was a lot of information…
But, we hope that it answered any questions you may have had. Dementia is a terrible and incurable disorder that scientists, doctors, and people like you and us have all been affected by. With the growing number of cases each year, we need to do all we can to foster a healthy and protected brain. If everyone plays their part, maybe we can keep this heart-breaking health problem from growing.
 Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet
 Alzheimer’s Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.alzheimers.net/resources/alzheimers-statistics/
 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/10_signs
 Dementia. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia
 Gray, S. L. (2015, March 01). Strong Anticholinergics and Incident Dementia. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2091745
 Anticholinergics: List, Side Effects, and More. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/anticholinergics
 Acetylcholine (ACh). (n.d.). Retrieved from http://memorylossonline.com/glossary/acetylcholine.html
 Merz, B. (2017, May 23). Common anticholinergic drugs like Benadryl linked to increased dementia risk. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/common-anticholinergic-drugs-like-benadryl-linked-increased-dementia-risk-201501287667
 What’s Causing Your Memory Loss? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/whats-causing-your-memory-loss.htm#top
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