A new study suggests that long-term use of certain medications, including multiple types of anticholinergic medications, could lead to a higher risk of dementia.
In a study published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal, a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia reviewed over 40,000 medical records of patients aged 65-years-old and above who were diagnosed with dementia between April 2006 and July 2015. The data was compared against the medical records of close to 284,000 people who didn’t suffer from the condition, with the researchers also looking at over 27 million prescriptions. According to BBC News, this made the study the largest of its kind to examine the link between long-term use of anticholinergic drugs and the risk of dementia.
Based on the researchers’ analysis, the patients who were diagnosed with dementia were up to 30 percent more likely to have been given prescriptions for certain types of anticholinergic drugs, with the link to dementia becoming stronger as patients were exposed more frequently to the medications.
Anticholinergic drugs are so named because they are designed to block acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting signals across the nervous system. As explained by USA Today, these drugs are used to treat a variety of conditions, including depression, bladder ailments, and Parkinson’s disease. They can also be used to treat stomach cramps and hay fever, but no link was established between the use of anticholinergic drugs for these specific conditions and the chances of a person being diagnosed with dementia.
Given the researchers’ finding that some anticholinergic drugs could increase the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s Society chief policy and research officer Dr. Doug Brown said that medical professionals should take stock of the study’s findings before prescribing these drugs to senior citizens.
“Current guidelines for doctors say that anticholinergic drugs should be avoided for frail older people because of their impact on memory and thinking, but doctors should consider these new findings for all over-65s as long-term use could raise the risk of dementia,” Brown said in a statement.
Though the findings may sound troubling for patients who have been taking anticholinergic medications for some time, experts believe that the best things to do are to remain calm, consult a doctor, and continue taking the drugs until told otherwise.
“Don’t do anything suddenly. Don’t stop taking your medication,” Aston University researcher Ian Maidment told BBC News.
“As a patient, if you are concerned about it, go and speak to your doctor or your pharmacist. You don’t have to see them urgently.”
Likewise, Dementia Research national director Martin Rossor warned patients that they should be careful when it comes to these studies, as associations, such as the supposed link between anticholinergic drugs and the risk of dementia, “do not prove causation.”