For people living with Parkinson’s disease, depression and a variety of bladder problems, long term use of anticholinergics medication is often the only way to control their condition. But new research has linked large quantities of certain anticholinergics to cases of dementia. The study, published in the British Medical Journal by researchers at the University of East Anglia, found people on these medications were more likely to develop dementia.
Anticholinergics is a common medication used to treat a variety of conditions, including overactive bladders, seasonal allergies, gastrointestinal disorders and epilepsy. Different doses of anticholinergics are used in different medications, with pills for Parkinson’s and depression often containing higher doses. It’s these high-dose drugs that pose the biggest increased risk of dementia, according to researchers.
Some of the drugs come with a warning they could cause temporary short-term impairment in cognition, which could impact attention and reaction time.
For their study, researchers analysed medical records of 40,770 patients aged between 65 and 99 with a dementia diagnosis between 2006 and 2015, then compared them with 283,933 people who weren’t living with dementia. The study looked at 27 million different prescriptions and found there was a clear link between long-term use anticholinergics and a dementia risk.
“A robust association between some classes of anticholinergic drugs and future dementia incidence was observed,” the study’s authors wrote. “This could be caused by a class specific effect, or by drugs being used for very early symptoms of dementia. Future research should examine anticholinergic drug classes as opposed to anticholinergic effects intrinsically or summing scales for anticholinergic expose.”
In middle and older age, more people are likely to take more than one type of drug for a variety of health problems and the impacts of taking drugs long term aren’t understood. Previous studies that linked anticholinergic to dementia have been limited for not being able to determine whether it was the drug or the condition itself that caused dementia.
Despite the worrying link, health professionals are encouraging people taking the medication to continue using it. Speaking to the BBC, Dr Ian Maidment from Aston University said it was important for people not to panic.
“Don’t do anything suddenly,” he said. “Don’t stop taking your medication. Not taking prescribed drugs could have serious consequences.”
Instead, his advice was for anyone concerned to talk to their GP or pharmacist. Because this study looked at long term impacts, he also said people shouldn’t feel a sense of urgency on the matter. He said in most cases, the risk of dementia did not outweigh the risks associated with not taking the medication in the first place.