Commonly Prescribed “Anticholinergic” Drugs Found Linked With Dementia Risk

The class of pharmaceutical drugs known as anticholinergics are used to treat a wide variety of conditions. This can include things like depression and psychosis as well as allergies, a handful of bladder and gastrointestinal conditions, and even Parkinson’s disease. 

But while these drugs have been known to provide a wide range of benefits, a new study warns that they might increase risk for dementia in some patients.  Specifically, the study found that strong anticholinergic medication use among people over the age of 55—at least once daily for more than three years—can increase risk for dementia by as much as 50 percent. 

According to study author Tom Dening, the study adds to a bevy of evidence that doctors should be more cautious about prescribing certain drugs that possess these anticholinergic properties.  Head of the University of Nottingham Center for Dementia, he goes on to say, “It is important that patients taking medications of this kind don’t just stop them abruptly as this may be much more harmful. If patients have concerns, then they should discuss them with their doctor to consider the pros and cons of the treatment they are receiving.”

To reach this conclusion, the research team analyzed medical data taken from more than 58,000 people who have been diagnosed with dementia. This data was collected between January 2004 and January 2016. From these records, the team analyzed that the average age of these patients was about 82; and roughly 63 percent of these patients were women. 

Also, the data indicated that 57 percent of patients received at least one strong anticholinergic drug prescription; and these drugs were prescribed within eleven years before receiving their dementia diagnosis.  While the study did find a definite link between the consistent administration of these drugs and the development of dementia, the researchers want to make sure that these findings are only viewed as associations and not necessarily a direct cause. 

As such, NIHR National Director of Dementia Research Professor Martin Rossor notes, “Further research is needed to confirm whether or not the association between these drugs and risk of dementia is causal.” He reminds that these drugs are prescribed for myriad health conditions, so patients who may be taking them should continue to do so while discussing their options or alternatives with their doctor. 

The results have been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) Internal Medicine.