Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine believe they may be one step closer to determining why a widely used class of drugs known as anticholinergics is linked to a decline in brain health later in life—and why it matters for seniors.
Used to treat everything from colds and allergies to depression and high blood pressure, anticholinergics work by blocking the function of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine in order to alleviate symptoms, but it turns out they may also be setting the stage for memory loss and even dementia.
For the purpose the study, researchers recruited more than 450 seniors who had not been diagnosed previously with Alzheimer’s disease or similar cognitive impairments. Sixty participants already had been taking anticholinergics for at least one month, and the effects were clear in both their brain scans and subsequent testing.
Those taking the drugs showed changes in brain volume and thickness, particularly in the areas of the brain linked to thinking and memory, and they scored lower on memory tests. In addition, their brain scans showed lower levels of glucose processing (which indicates healthy brain activity) in key memory regions of the brain—those often affected in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Based on their results, study authors believe seniors may want to look into alternative treatments before taking anticholinergic medications, or at the very least discuss with their healthcare practitioners the risks and benefits involved with taking certain drugs.