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Common Over-the-Counter Meds Shrink Brain and Raise Alzheimer’s Risk


Brain Plaque Every year, millions of people reach for over-the-counter drugs to get relief from everything from allergies, insomnia, heartburn and even angst. But could this quick relief come at the expense of your long-term brain health?

You may remember the alarming headlines that circulated late last year. Researchers found that three seemingly unrelated medications — allergy medications, sleep aids and anti-anxiety drugs —  were all linked to increased risk for brain disorders, however, the exact connection between these medications was, at the time, unclear.

Upon further investigations, scientists at Indiana University School of Medicine found that people who took the drugs for two and a half years not only had a reduction in brain size — something we know is linked to increased risk for dementia — but their brain metabolism was slower compared to people who didn’t take the medications. The pill-takers also had lower scores in memory and cognition.

So What Do the Drugs Have in Common?

It may seem startling that such a broad range of drugs produces this detrimental effect on the brain. They all have anticholinergic activity, which block acetylcholine, a chemical needed for the communication of electrical impulses between nerve cells. Sufferers of Alzheimer’s are deficient in acetylcholine, so the pills may hasten the onset or worsen the severity of the condition. Aside from the drugs for sleep, allergy and heartburn, many other medications have these effects. They include pills for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, overactive bladder, depression, nausea, vomiting, psychosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Researchers Advise Opting for Alternatives to Anticholinergic Drugs

In the new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, 451 seniors were tested on memory and cognition. In addition, the size of their brain was assessed with magnetic resonance imaging scans, and the metabolism of their brain was evaluated with positron emission tests.

Participants taking the anticholinergic drugs performed worse on tests involving short-term memory and some tests involving executive function. Earlier they had been diagnosed with cognitive impairment, which is a forerunner of dementia. Their brains were also four percent smaller, and they had slower metabolism in the overall brain as well as in the hippocampus, the structure involved in memory.

“The use of anticholinergic medication was associated with increased brain atrophy and dysfunction and clinical decline. Thus, use of anticholinergic medication among older adults should likely be discouraged if alternative therapies are available,” the authors concluded.

The researchers in the study advised older adults to avoid this class of drugs whenever possible because they are more sensitive to their effects and are at greater risk of dementia. However, since Alzheimer’s starts many years before the symptoms manifest, people of any age can benefit from seeking natural or alternative agents to get relief from common ailments.


Mary West is a natural health enthusiast, as she believes this area can profoundly enhance wellness. She is the creator of a natural healing website where she focuses on solutions to health problems that work without side effects. You can visit her site and learn more at Ms. West is also the author of Fight Cancer Through Powerful Natural Strategies.

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