Allergy Medication and Dementia?

Spring is in the air! Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping and … people are sneezing! Unfortunately, for 8% of the U.S. population over age 18, spring marks the time of the year when there is an increase in sneezing, stuffy noses and itchy eyes. This is due to allergic reactions to various pollens that are released by trees and flowering plants. Over-the-counter anticholinergic (AC) medications, such as Benadryl, are a quick solution to relieve these symptoms. However, recent internet and news articles have scared many people with the news that these drugs may be linked to dementia – reduced brain function, often characterized by loss of memory.  How much of this is true and should you be worried?

Why There May Be a Link to Dementia
Back in 2015, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) showed that people older than 65 are 65% more at risk for dementia when taking AC medications. More recently, researchers in another study published in JAMA looked at a few tests that might indicate lower cognitive performance (a sign of dementia) as well as images of the participants’ brains. They found that in tests such as memory recall, participants who took AC medication scored lower than those who did not. Furthermore, special images taken of the participants’ brains showed that those who take AC medication had lower total cortical and temporal volume. These are areas in the brain that are associated with memory recall and language.

So Keep Sneezing?
Despite the studies showing a link between AC medication and dementia, you shouldn’t panic and immediately drop any medication you may be taking for your allergies. It is important to understand that a 65% increased risk of getting dementia does not mean the same as a 65% chance of developing dementia. The overall risk of getting dementia is roughly 7% and does not change much even when taking the risk from AC medication into consideration. If you are unsure if the medication you are taking is an AC, the Indiana University Center for Aging Research has a convenient list of AC medications. If any of these medications cause concern for you, you should discuss these with your physician.

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Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.