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Studies Find Over the Counter Medications may be Linked to High Risk for Alzheimer's and Dementia

Recent studies have shown a strong link to a few frequently used over-the-counter medications and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  Some medications for allergies and insomnia may not be safe when it comes to Alzheimer’s prevention - particularly with long term use. 

Antihistamines, sleep aids, antidepressants, drugs for diarrhea, incontinence, diverticulitis and ulcers, as well as muscle relaxants, are a few of the common drugs identified in studies as raising the risk for AD.  This class of drugs is called “anticholinergic drugs,” and they include common names such as Benadryl, Dramamine, Advil PM, Unisom and others. Prescription drugs with anticholinergic effects include Paxil and Demerol, Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Tavist and others.

Study Outcomes of Drugs Linked to Dementia

In a study published by JAMA Neurology, conducted at the Indiana University School of Medicine, researchers used MRI and PET imaging to detect the effects of anticholinergic drugs on the brain.  The brain imaging tests revealed that those who took anticholinergic drugs had higher brain atrophy and lower brain metabolism.  Researchers also discovered that regular anticholinergic drug regimens resulted in lower memory test scores.

A University of Washington study in 2015 found that the long-term use (3 years or more) of anticholinergic sleep aids and hay fever medication increased the risk of dementia.  In the joint study, involving a joint project with the University of Washington and the National Institute on Aging, researchers conducted follow up studies for 7 years on nearly 3,500 seniors who participated in the study. 

Those taking commonly prescribed medications such as doxepin (at least 10 mg/day), Benadryl (at least 4 mg/day), and Ditropan (5 mg/day), in qualifying doses for over 4 years, were estimated by researchers to be at greater risk for developing dementia.

This study found a “dose response” to anticholinergics and higher risk for dementia, meaning the more you take, the higher the risk.  The study also found that the effects of taking these drugs over a long period of time may not be reversible-even years after you stop taking the medications. “Older adults should be aware that many medications - including some available without a prescription, such as over-the-counter sleep aids - have strong anticholinergic effects,” study leader, Gray said.

Substitues for Anticholinergic Drugs

If you have decided to forego taking anticholinergic drugs, first off, talk to your physician before suddenly stopping.  There are some substitutes as well as natural remedies that are effective. But, you should discuss these with your physician before making the switch-particularly if you are on a prescription drug with anticholinergic effects.

Sleep Promotion


Melatonin or Valerian root are natural sleep remedies that can be used as substitutes for Benadryl or Unisom.  Foods high in Melatonin such as red cherries, bananas, ginger or radishes can be eaten at bedtime to help induce sleepiness.  Also, working regularly and maintaining a strict routine of sleep (and rising) the same hours each day will help promote a restful sleep at night. Be sure to talk to your physician before starting any type of exercise regime. Another tip for inducing sleepiness is to set your heat/air conditioning settings between 60 and 70 degrees, which lowers the internal thermometer and is said to help promote sleepiness.

Natural Allergy Remedies

There are several natural remedies for allergies.  Again, it’s important to notify the physician before changing any medication regime.  If you have asthma, it’s vital to control allergic reactions.  Your physician should be consulted before any medication is discontinued or substituted. 

Here are some natural remedies to discuss with your physician:

  • A charcoal/HEPPA filter to reduce airborne allergens in the home
  • Various types of essential oils in a diffuser such as Eucalyptus oil
  • Quercetin supplements to promote respiratory health
  • Probiotics and antioxidants to build the immune system
  • Nasal saline irrigation to rinse the sinuses and help remove allergens from the nose and upper respiratory tract-recommended by Ear, nose and throat surgeons
  • One study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology suggested peppermint oil helps to relax antispasmodic activity and inhibits contractions that cause coughing

Again, keep in mind that even when implementing these natural remedies, your physician should be consulted beforehand.

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