Popular strain of drugs may increase risk of Alzheimer's, study finds

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Researchers say these types of medications are used for a wide array of conditions

While researchers have found ways consumers can protect themselves against Alzheimer’s disease, a new study is exploring how certain medications can increase the risk of cognitive decline.

According to researchers from the University of California at San Diego, anticholinergic drugs, which are used to treat everything from high blood pressure to allergies, can put consumers at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

“This study...suggests that reducing anticholinergic drug use before cognitive problems may be important for preventing future negative effects on memory and thinking skills, especially for people at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” said researcher Lisa Delano-Wood, PhD. 

Knowing the risks

The researchers had nearly 700 participants involved in the study, none of whom were exhibiting any signs of memory or cognitive struggles when the study began. Participants reported on the anticholinergic drugs they were taking, which can be administered as either over-the-counter or prescription drugs, and the researchers assessed their health outcomes over the course of a decade. 

The researchers learned that not only were the participants taking nearly five different types of anticholinergic drugs, but the doses of the drugs were much higher than what is typically recommended -- especially for older people. Taking these drugs in such high quantities was linked to memory and cognitive impairments as the study progressed. 

The researchers also looked at the participants’ genetic make-up to determine how the combination of any pre-existing factors and the presence of anticholinergic drugs could affect the likelihood of participants developing Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, the researchers also identified a link there, as cognitive impairments were 2.5 times more likely when participants were taking anticholinergic drugs and presented with existing risk factors. 

While the researchers plan to do more work in this area moving forward, they hope that these findings show how anticholinergic drugs can be a detriment to consumers’ cognitive function as they age. 

“This points to a potential area for improvement since reducing anticholinergic drug dosages may possibly delay cognitive decline,” said researcher Alexandra Weigand. “It’s important for older adults who take anticholinergic medications to regularly consult with their doctors and discuss medication use and dosages.” 

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