Study looked at older adults’ dementia risk after taking anticholinergic drugs.

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Anticholinergic drugs may be more harmful than beneficial — especially when it comes to brain health. Getty Images

Researchers have shed light on yet another risk factor that could potentially up your chances of developing dementia down the road: anticholinergic drugs.

About 5 million people in the United States are currently living with dementia, a number that’s expected to skyrocket within the next 30 years.

Though the condition affects millions of people around the world, what causes and prevents dementia and we know a handful of risk factors —like high cholesterol, diabetes, and drug use — that contribute to the onset of dementia

But many cases of dementia do not have a clear cause.

Now this new research sheds light on other potential causes of the condition.

Researchers found that anticholinergic drugs, which are frequently prescribed by doctors for a variety of illnesses, may spike older adults’ risk of getting dementia by about 50 percent.

The research adds to a number of previous studies suggesting that anticholinergic drugs may be more harmful than beneficial — especially when it comes to brain health.

The study was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Anticholinergics are used to treat a wide range of conditions — from depression and Parkinson’s disease to bladder disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and insomnia.

“The takeaway is that when people are offered or are on a medication for long-term use, it is a good idea to ask the prescribing physician about anticholinergic properties and whether there are alternatives,” Dr. Frank Longo, a neurologist and the chair of the department of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford Health Care, told Healthline.

In this study the researchers evaluated the health data of 284,343 people ages 55 and older sourced from the UK QResearch primary care database.

Of the 284,343 people, the team identified 58,769 patients who’d been diagnosed with dementia.

The team then looked at what type of anticholinergic medication, if any, the people had been taking.

Approximately 57 percent of the people with dementia had been prescribed at least one anticholinergic drug within 11 years of being diagnosed with the condition. Nearly 51 percent of people without dementia had also been prescribed at least one anticholinergic drug in the same time frame.

The researchers found that those who took anticholinergics had about a 50 percent higher chance of having dementia.

Additionally, those who took antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, anti-Parkinson’s drugs, overactive bladder drugs, and anti-epileptic drugs had the greatest risk of developing dementia.

The medications work by blocking acetylcholine, a chemical that helps relax and contract your muscles.

When this chemical is blocked, people’s memory and attention can become impaired — which is the reason so many people complain of acute confusion and memory loss while taking these medications.

It’s thought that over time anticholinergics can inhibit these cognitive functions and eventually make certain people more vulnerable to the type of degeneration that occurs in dementia.

“Long-term blockage of the transmitter may lead to an acceleration of memory loss or even potentially degeneration of these types of cells in the brain,” Dr. David Merrill, a neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, told Healthline.

Still, more research is needed to better understand exactly why anticholinergic drugs may increase people’s risk of dementia.

While there may be other factors at play, the researchers suspect that anticholinergics may cause about 10 percent of all new dementia cases.

If you’re on any anticholinergics drugs, you may want to check in with your doctors about these risks, health experts warn.

According to the researchers, people should definitely weigh their drug’s benefits alongside the risks to determine if alternative treatments are available.

Ask your doctor whether the drugs you’re taking have strong anticholinergic properties. If they do, it may be worth looking into other medication options.

“Fortunately, for most of these drugs there are alternative or newer drugs in the same category of the original drug that have little or no anticholinergic effects,” Longo said.

That said, you shouldn’t stop taking your medications abruptly without first talking to your doctor about your options, he added.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines on how to lower your chances of getting dementia.

The key, it seems, is to follow a healthy lifestyle.

Eat a well-balanced diet by loading up on fruit, veggies, fish, and whole grains.

Regular exercise can also keep your brain sharp and cut your chances of experiencing cognitive decline. Most experts recommend getting about 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week.

Alcohol and cigarette use has also been linked to dementia, so if you want to keep your brain healthy, you’ll want to cut back on those.

That said, moderate consumption of alcohol — think a couple glasses of wine a week — may actually reduce your risk of dementia.

If vitamins and supplements have made their way into your diet to boost your brain health, the WHO suggests dropping them. There really isn’t enough research out regarding whether or not supplements can prevent dementia, so it’s better to hold off until we have the science to back them up.

Lastly, stay social. When we age, we tend to isolate ourselves and let our friendships fall to the wayside. Interestingly, isolation and loneliness are associated with cognitive decline. Not to mention, friendships can help boost your mood and promote overall better health.

“‘Use it or lose it’ is a true refrain for muscle strength and bone density,” Merrill said. “We now know the same is also for brain health.”

New research found that anticholinergic drugs — including certain antidepressants, Parkinson’s medications, and bladder drugs — may spike older adults’ risk of getting dementia by about 50 percent. The research supports previous evidence suggesting that medications with anticholinergic properties may do more damage than good.

Given the findings, health experts don’t recommend stopping your medications abruptly, but it may be worth asking your doctor about alternative treatment options.