An April 2016 study from Indiana University found that drugs can cause dementia. There were 451 people enrolled in the study with an average age of 73. 60 of them were taking at least one or more anticholinergic drugs. Anticholinergic drugs are drugs that inhibit the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in nerves or in the brain. The end result is that spasms in the stomach, bowel or bladder are relieved. Also the many over-the-counter sleep medications that may contain anticholinergic drugs help you to fall asleep easier. In the above-mentioned study researchers measured the effects that the drugs have, using different tests. They used memory and cognitive tests to check for memory loss, reasoning and judgment. PET scans were used for measuring brain metabolism. MRI scans were used to look for structural brain changes.
Results on how anticholinergic drugs can cause dementia
Memory tests and cognitive function tests showed that those taking anticholinergic drugs did worse on memory tests, verbal reasoning, problem solving and planning. The PET scan showed that glucose utilization by the brain was down in those who were taking anticholinergic drugs. The hippocampus was particularly affected with lower glucose utilization. This is the center where short-term memory is processed. It is also the area where Alzheimer’s patients have been found to have problems with early memory loss.
MRI scans showed that there were structural brain changes in the patients that were using anticholinergic drugs. Their brains had reduced brain volume (brain atrophy) and the brain cavities in the brain, called ventricles were enlarged. Overall this meant that their brains had much less brain cells when compared to controls that did not take anticholinergic drugs.
In a 2013 study from the Indiana University researchers had established that it took only 60 days of taking cholinergic drugs to cause cognitive problems. Using drugs with only weak anticholinergic side effects, it took up to 90 days before the same cognitive deterioration could be measured.
The researchers concluded that it would be wise for physicians to consider switching a patient to medication that does not include anticholinergic side effects to prevent development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Anticholinergic drugs can cause dementia
In the study above it was stated that it was the group of anticholinergic drugs that was particularly problematic. These are over-the-counter-drugs like sleep aids, antihistamines, and incontinence drugs etc. that were having anticholinergic side effects. The more of these types of drugs are taken, the more interaction can take place, leading to full-blown anticholinergic symptoms. As people age, they collect more and more symptoms and diseases. Physicians tend to treat the symptoms with various medications, so it is not unusual for an elderly person to be on 5 or 6 different drugs. If one or more of these drugs have anticholinergic side effects, this can add up and cause the kind of observations the above mentioned clinical study showed: dementia symptoms and proof that the brain metabolism has been slowed down. The brain also experiences the structural changes of dementia that I mentioned.
Possibility that herbs and drugs can cause dementia
The problem does not stop here. It is possible that over-the-counter herbs that you may innocently get in the health food store can participate in the overall metabolic interaction of anticholinergic substances. Many herbs have pharmacological substances in them that have specific helpful effects. But whenever a drug or herb has a positive effect, quite often there is an undesirable effect or side effect.
Historically Belladonna is a poisonous plant that has medicinal values. Unfortunately many Belladonna preparations are available in health food stores that are not regulated by the FDA. Belladonna has strong anticholinergic side effects that interfere with other anticholinergic side effects.
There are many other herbs that are available without prescription.
Kava-kava is an herb and a hallucinogenic that has anticholinergic properties. Keep in mind that the more you use Kava-Kava, the more your brain gets shut down. Why? The anticholinergic effect of Kava-Kava shuts down acetylcholine, the main stimulus in your brain cells to help you think.
Passionflower is an herb that sedates and is often used as a tincture to help you to fall asleep. What is perceived as a natural effect is merely the anticholinergic effect on the central nervous system.
Hops is the calming compound found in beer. It is also often used together with other sedating herbal sleeping remedies in teas.
St. John’s wort is also on the list. In smaller doses this herbal antidepressant may be useful and may have less side effects than commercial antidepressants. But there are possible side effects of dry mouth and constipation, which are the result of the anticholinergic side effect.
All of these herbs are not any different from the medications discussed earlier, except that they are a bit weaker with regard to the anticholinergic effect.
Street drugs can cause dementia
Many street drugs are sedating and they have anticholinergic effects. It is therefore no surprise that with chronic use of street drugs drug users can come down with dementia, even at a relatively young age. Long-term use of anticholinergic drugs is associated with delirium and dementia.
Particularly benzodiazepines, meperidine (an opioid), antidepressants and many other drugs when taken together cause dementia, in part because of additive anticholinergic activity.
In an Edinburgh study from England 34 deceased patients, who were heavily using street drugs were autopsied. Their brains were compared to healthy 16-year-old non-drug users. There was nerve cell damage in the brain area involved with learning, memory and wellbeing. The pathologist found the same dementia findings that would be present in much older Alzheimer patients. We have to conclude from this that the damage was done by the anticholinergic effect of the drugs that were used as a mix in the years prior to their deaths. There can be added toxicity to nerve cells from interacting drugs and their side effects.
Whenever you have a substance that helps to get you drowsy so you can sleep better, be careful and check that it is not because of the anticholinergic effect of an herb or an over-the-counter drug. Melatonin is an exception, because this is your body’s own sleeping hormone that your body knows. Whenever anticholinergic drugs or herbs act on your brain they can over time cause an irreversible brain atrophy, which can been shown by MRI scans as in the study mentioned above. This leads to cognitive problems including memory problems. PET scans have also shown a permanent slowdown of glucose metabolism of the brain cells of the hippocampus, where short-term memory is located. Without that function you get permanent dementia. Instead of being treated symptomatically ask your physician for the cause of your symptoms and have the cause treated. You may not always get the answer you need from conventional medicine. As the next step you may want a second opinion from a naturopath to see whether there would be an alternative treatment available that does not involve anticholinergic medications. Go to the root of the problem, avoid drugs that cause damage, and keep your brain healthy and your mental capacities without cognitive deficits!