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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Over-the-Counter Drugs and Dementia Risks

I have been speaking to groups of older adults for awhile now. I cover the topic of medications when I am speaking about memory. All memory loss is not caused by dementia. Recovering memories can be very challenging when you have been on certain medications for awhile. This is always a complete surprise and somewhat unsettling when my audience hears this for the first time. I explain this situation by reviewing aging body/aging brain with them.

As we get older we notice physical changes because we can see them. But the ‘inside’ of our aging bodies is undergoing slower metabolism. This results in the inability to process and clear our medications in a timely manner. Our liver, the clearinghouse organ, and our kidneys, another clearing organ, might be functioning slower due to a life of wear and tear. The medications we take one day might not be cleared from our bodies by the time we are due to take that medication again the next day. This results in accumulating amounts of medication remaining in our system. That can cause many problems, depending on what the medication is.

We might have gained weight and the medication we have been taking for years might not be enough to deliver the same health benefits. In the same vein, we might have lost a significant amount of weight and our long-standing meds might now be too strong for us. We are overdosing (accidentally) because the dose is too high and our metabolism is too low.

Many medications have a direct impact on our brain and all of these aging changes can possibly mimic dementia. Multiple medications compound the issue and you could swear that this person is truly demented by their loss of cognitive status and general behavior.

We have a gatekeeper for our medications in the form of our pharmacist. If your pharmacist sees any discrepancies, notices multiple prescriptions coming in for the same diagnoses or understands how aging may play a role in metabolizing your prescriptions, they can alert you and your doctor of the problem.

But the situation is quite different with OTC’s (over the counter) medications. We rarely give them the respect they deserve in our healthcare. Even though they are not prescribed by your doctor they are still very potent medications. If you don’t alert your pharmacist of the routine OTC’s you take with your other medication, some serious side effects may occur. And, as the rest of this paper indicates, there are groups of these drugs that can cause memory loss. This is not a problem to be taken lightly.

The Potential Adverse Effects of Certain OTC Drugs

There was a study report released in the past couple of years that discussed the increasing risk of dementia from the use of certain over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. We don’t give OTC medications the attention they deserve because we don’t need a prescription to buy them. This study revealed that certain hay-fever, sleep aids, and treatments for bladder control can increase the risk for developing dementia.

The brain health section of the AARP website ( published the findings of this study. The study followed 63434 participants, aged 65 years and older. These participants were monitored for 7 years. OTC drugs like Nitrol (sleep aid), Benedryl (antihistimine), and Ditropan (bladder control) were the class of drugs under study. The results demonstrated that of this group, 637 developed Alzheimer’s disease and 160 developed other forms of dementia. 54% of those taking a drug had an increased risk of dementia as opposed to a control group that didn’t take any of these medications. The non-use group did not increase their risk for dementia.

If you take these drugs daily for 3 years you can increase your risk of dementia by 60%.

The Role of Anticholinergics

These drugs are anticholinergics and they work by blocking acetylcholine – the neurotransmitter compromised in Alzheimer’s disease. These specific medications slow the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which plays a large role in memory retention. Many doctors are unaware of the anti-cholinergic properties in commonly prescribed medications – resulting in a very big risk for those people who have been diagnosed with MCI –Mild Cognitive Impairment. Very few medications are labeled or classified as anticholinergic. The fear is that these drugs will exacerbate or trigger Alzheimer’s disease. And, many of these drugs are taken by older adults who may be more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.

The class of benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax) received an update also. It was believed that after stopping these drugs the brain would be clear again. New studies indicate that this might not be true. These drugs can cause confusion and slow down mental processes. If these drugs are discontinued before the 3-month mark, the risk for dementia stays low.

There are safe alternatives to these medications. It is important to talk with your doctor about health issues you are experiencing. These drugs can interfere with other prescription medications as well. Over-the-counter drugs are nothing to guess about. Don’t self-diagnose or self-medicate. The cost can be higher than just financial.



Neel, A.B. (2017). Caution! These 10 drugs can cause memory loss. Retrieved July 4, 2018 from

Sauer, A. (June 13, 2015). How memory loss can be caused by over-the-counter medication. Retrieved July 3, 2018 from


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