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Medications: Help, Hurt, or Both?

Updated: May 4, 2022

In the United States, more than seven million people have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or have dementia. According to Xueya Cai and colleagues, nearly half of these individuals have two additional chronic diseases that require them to take five or more medications.1

Medications: Help, Hurt, or Both?

As a consequence of age-related decreases in kidney and liver function, older people tend to excrete medications at a slower rate and are therefore more likely to experience stronger, and not always reversible, drug-induced side effects. Another factor is the potential for complicated interactions with the other prescribed and over-the-counter medications that older people may take. Research indicates that as people age, they become more sensitive to drugs that act on the central nervous system.2

One group of medications, anticholinergics, have recently come under increased scrutiny. This class of drugs slows or prevents the transmission of nervous system information to and from the brain. Some commonly used over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antihistamines for cold and allergy symptoms are anticholinergics. Prescription anticholinergic medications relieve symptoms associated with depression, muscle spasms, motion sickness, as well as those used to modify the behaviors associated with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

It is important to understand that memory loss and confusion along with dizziness or drowsiness may be symptoms of medication side effects, rather than dementia. Therefore, the clinician must receive from the patient or his or her family a list of ALL prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as any dietary supplements and herbals, he or she may take.

Anticholinergics can also interfere with the effectiveness of medications used to slow memory loss or long-term use, putting people at higher risk for MCI and dementia later in life.1,3 One example is the drugs used to treat overactive bladder: the “gotta go gotta go” kind of urinary incontinence. Medications such as Detrol® and Cymbalta® slow transmission of nervous system information to and from the brain and thereby quiet the unrelenting sensation of “gotta go."

The medications used to slow the memory loss associated with dementia do just the opposite. Drugs such as Aricept® and Namenda® increase communication between nerve cells in the brain. Taking both types of medications at the same time can worsen dementia.

A Wake Forest University of Medicine study shows that nursing home patients receiving individual medications to modify dementia symptoms and improve continence lost the ability to perform basic living skills, such as dressing and feeding themselves, 50 percent faster than those receiving dementia medications alone. 4

One must evaluate the overall risks and benefits of taking a medication known to affect the risk for dementia later in life or, in the short run, worsen the disease. Be sure to discuss with your doctor any concerns about taking a medication that may increase dementia risk. Do not stop taking prescribed or recommended over-the-counter medicines without first consulting with your doctor.


1. Cai Z, N Campbell et al, “Long-term Anticholinergic use and the Aging Brain”,, (accessed April 25, 2016)

2. Drug-Induced Cognitive Impairment: Delirium and Dementia, (accessed, April 25, 2016)

3. Higher dementia risk linked to using of common drugs, GroupHealth Research Institute, (accessed April 25, 2015).

4. Dual Treatment to Treat AD Symptoms and Behaviors, (accessed, April 25, 2016)

For Further Reading

(accessed April 24, 2016 - website has since been relocated)

Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, Ph.D., is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.” Available through Amazon. The opinions expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily the opinions of the Dementia Society, Inc. We do not endorse nor guarantee products, comments, suggestions, links, or other forms of the content contained within blog posts that have been provided to us with permission, or otherwise. Dementia Society does not provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor.

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