Diphenhydramine is an anticholinergic drug. Recently released research shows that older adults who take anticholinergic drugs on a regular basis performed worse on tests measuring important skills such as short-term memory, problem solving, planning and verbal reasoning. Even more disturbingly, MRI scans indicated that these people’s brains had actually shrunk, while PET scans showed their brains were not as active.
Moreover, people who took anticholinergic drugs also showed lower glucose metabolism levels in their brains overall and in the hippocampus in particular, which is strongly tied to memory and one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s. Their brain volumes were smaller overall, while the cavities inside their brains were actually bigger.
Lost cognitive function might never be recovered
Psychiatrist Barbara Sommer told CBS2 New York: “Whereas it’s always been thought if you stop anticholinergic drugs, all of the cognitive functions you’ve lost come back, now people aren’t so sure. And they’re worried that this may lead to or hasten the onset of dementia.”
Sommer is an expert on anticholinergic drugs, and for her, the solution is clear: “I would take these medications myself only very rarely and I will try at all costs to avoid taking them for a long term.”
Anticholinergic drugs is a broad category that encompasses many common medications such as Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Dramamine, Dimetapp, Unisom, Demerol, and Paxil, to name just a few.
Scientists are calling for additional studies to uncover the mechanisms involved in the contribution of these drugs to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.
Cognitive decline noted in as little as 60 days
A 2013 study out of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research revealed that strong anticholinergic drugs could lead to cognitive problems after just 60 days, while weaker anticholinergic drugs could lead to cognitive problems after 90 days. Researchers are suggesting that doctors give older patients alternatives to these medications when they are available.
Another concern is that these medications are so common that people sometimes end up taking a few different types of anticholinergics at once without even realizing they are magnifying the danger – and their doctors often don’t realize it either as they might be getting additional prescriptions from different doctors or even self-medicating with OTC anticholinergics.
Be vigilant and seek natural alternatives
This is yet another example of medications hurting people more than they help. One way that people can avoid the undesirable side effects of these medications is by seeking natural alternatives. Herbal remedies can help with many of the ailments that anticholinergics treat, and many of them do not have adverse effects.
This issue has a big effect on older people, many of whom are not always up to date on the latest studies or sharp enough to manage their affairs – particularly if they are taking meds that impair their cognitive function! That’s why it is a good idea to look into the medications any elderly loved ones are taking to ensure they are not taking these medications in combination or individually over a long period of time. If they are, you should voice concerns about their effect on cognitive function to your loved one’s doctor and ask about alternatives.