Side-Effects of Common Drugs Mimic Symptoms of Early Dementia – Study

A number of classic symptoms, widely regarded as telltale signs a person is beginning to slip into the early stages of dementia, have been regarded by families and doctors as a signal to start preparing for the worst.

The onset of dementia is usually a time when medications are prescribed to slow its progress or ameliorate its effects. In the case of the elderly, Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no cure, is most often the cause of dementia.

Researchers, however, now believe that this scenario may frequently have a far different and much less ominous source.A study published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found that a number of commonly prescribed drugs used in the treatment of depression, Parkinson’s disease and allergies can produce side effects that echo those of early dementia.

These drugs, known as anticholinergics, can cause memory loss, disorientation, and confusion, thereby prompting doctors to mistakenly prescribe drugs to treat dementia. The most commonly used medications to treat dementia in its early stages are pro-cholinergic drugs.

Because of this finding, the study authors urge doctors to determine immediately which medications their patients are already taking before prescribing drugs for early dementia.

The researchers concluded that, since a large number of elderly people take anticholinergics, they are likely to be diagnosed as having early dementia when, in fact, they do not.

Reuters reports that, in an interview, Karen Ritchie of the Hopital La Colombiere in Montpellier, France, stated: “We might find a large number of people in the rather ridiculous position of taking what we call pro-cholinergic medication to counteract anticholinergic drugs they are already taking.

“A very large number of people with so-called early dementia have these effects due to drug consumption. The drugs they are taking are very common — they include things like antihistamines.”

In the long-term study, the researchers questioned 372 elderly people without dementia about the medications they had taken and their past illnesses. Of that group, about 10% had taken anticholinergics for a long period of time.

Monitoring and evaluating the patients continued for up to 8 years after which the researchers found that those who had taken anticholinergics had poorer cognitive performance. Some 85% had mild cognitive impairment as compared to only 35% of those who had not taken the medications.

According to Ritchie: “What we showed is that many of the people who are classified in this way have it due to the medication they are taking, and not because they have early Alzheimer’s disease.”

Anticholinergics relieve tremors, muscle stiffness, weakness, anxiety, incontinence, and sleep problems. Other medications not listed in the same class also have anticholinergic properties. Conversely, the “cholinergic system consists of neurotransmitters that regulate a lot of our mental functioning, particularly related to memory.”

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