Do Common Medications Cause Brain Damage in Seniors?

Elderly person taking medicationSome popular over-the-counter and prescription medications could increase the risk of cognitive impairments and dementia in seniors, according to a study published in JAMA Neurology.

The medications are classified as anticholinergics because they block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Though many common medications used for allergies and insomnia are anticholinergics, some other drugs—including some popular psychiatric medications—have an anticholinergic effect. You can find a complete list of these drugs here.

Should Seniors Reconsider Some Common Medications?

Previous studies have found a link between the use of anticholinergic drugs and cognitive impairments. For example, a 2013 study found that continuously taking a strong anticholinergic for as few as 60 days could cause cognitive problems. Until now, scientists did not know what was behind this link. The new study examines the specific biochemical factors that undermine brain function in some seniors who use anticholinergic drugs.

To assess the effects of anticholinergics, the team analyzed 451 older adults who participated in either the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative or the Indiana Memory and Aging Study. Participants underwent tests of memory and other cognitive functioning as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to measure brain structure and positron emission tests (PET) to assess brain metabolism.

Sixty participants were continuously taking at least one drug with medium or high anticholinergic properties. That group performed more poorly on tests of short-term memory and on some tests of executive function than seniors who did not take anticholinergics.

Effects of Common Medications on the Brain

Brain scans revealed lower glucose metabolism levels in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. Glucose metabolism is one way to measure brain activity, and the hippocampus plays a role in memory. Research has shown the early stages of Alzheimer’s affect functioning in this brain structure. Seniors who used anticholinergics also had less brain volume than those who did not use the drugs.

Because of the clear connection between anticholinergics and brain deterioration, the study’s authors discourage seniors from using anticholinergics when other treatments are available.


  1. Risacher, S. L., Mcdonald, B. C., Tallman, E. F., West, J. D., Farlow, M. R., Unverzagt, F. W. . . . Saykin, A. J. (2016). Association between anticholinergic medication use and cognition, brain metabolism, and brain atrophy in cognitively normal older adults. JAMA Neurology. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2016.0580
  2. Tinker, B. (2016, April 18). Common over-the-counter drugs can hurt your brain. Retrieved from

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  • Dailey


    April 22nd, 2016 at 1:09 PM

    I think that from now on I am not going to let my grandmother start any new medication, especially over the counter, without first meeting with her internist to get her opinion.

  • joseph


    April 23rd, 2016 at 3:34 PM

    Is it the fact that they are taking the meds that are harmful?
    Or are they taking them in a way that is not recommended or they are having interactions with the other medications that they are also taking?
    I mean, we have to know these things before we can simply assume that all of them are bad and causing damage to the brain when this likely may not be the truth.

  • Tanner


    April 25th, 2016 at 2:48 PM

    Well isn’t this a scary thought given how readily available most of these things are?

  • Casey


    April 26th, 2016 at 2:21 PM

    My thoughts have always been that far too often we turn to medications to try to solve problems that could easily be solved in another manner. We have been fed this lie that we have to take a pill to make things right and luckily the truth is finally coming out that no, what actually is happening is that are over medicating and that we are probably doing a whole lot more harm than we are doing good.

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