Increased Dementia Risk Linked to Drugs Commonly Used to Treat Intestinal, Respiratory & Mood Disorders

Anticholinergic drugs are used for a panoply of reasons—for depression and psychosis, bladder and gastrointestinal conditions, allergies and symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

Yet, in a study published Monday in Journal of the American Medical Association's Internal Medicine, people over age 55 who used strong anticholinergic medication each day for more than three years had a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia.

"This study provides further evidence that doctors should be careful when prescribing certain drugs that have anticholinergic properties," Tom Dening, one of the authors and head of the Center for Dementia at the University of Nottingham, said in a press release. "However, it's important that patients taking medications of this kind don't just stop them abruptly as this may be much more harmful. If patients have concerns, then they should discuss them with their doctor to consider the pros and cons of the treatment they are receiving."

Researchers analyzed medical data on nearly 59,000 people with dementia, which they collected between January 2004 and January 2016. Of the records they analyzed, the average age of patients was 82 and about 63 percent of them were women.

Approximately 57 percent of the patients in the study received a prescription for at least one strong anticholinergic drug, one to 11 years before being diagnosed with dementia. Though the link found between the drugs and development of dementia appears strong, the researchers noted that their findings are associations and do not show that the drugs cause dementia.

Doctors prescribe anticholinergic drugs to treat conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bladder conditions, allergies, gastrointestinal disorders and symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

The study also had some limitations—for example, some patients may not have taken their prescribed medication as directed, so anticholinergic exposure levels could have been misclassified.

"Further research is needed to confirm whether or not the association between these drugs and risk of dementia is causal. These drugs are prescribed for a number of health conditions and any concerns patients might have about them should be discussed with their doctors," Professor Martin Rossor, NIHR National Director of Dementia Research, said.

These health conditions may be as acute as seizures or psychosis, so weighing the pros and cons of taking this medication with a healthcare provider is critical, experts say.

"I spend a lot of my time in the memory disorder clinic seeing geriatric patients and taking people off medications, mostly ones that have anticholinergic properties, and many times there can be another drug out there that has less anticholinergic impact or is non-anticholinergic that may work," Dr. Douglas Scharre, director of the division of cognitive neurology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, told CNN.

"It's a risk-benefit discussion ... so have a conversation with your doctor," added Scharre, who was not involved in the study.

Carol Coupland, a researcher from the University of Nottingham and study lead author, added: "The risks of this type of medication should be carefully considered by healthcare professionals alongside the benefits when the drugs are prescribed and alternative treatments should be considered where possible, such as other types of antidepressants or alternative types of treatment for bladder conditions."

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Increased Dementia Risk Linked to Drugs Commonly Used to Treat Intestinal, Respiratory & Mood Disorders | Health
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