Harvard Health Letter

New concerns about anticholinergic medications

Anticholinergics, a group of medications that includes many over-the-counter and prescription drugs, are well known for causing confusion in older adults. Common medications with anticholinergic properties include medications to treat overactive bladder, such as oxybutynin (Ditropan); medications to treat allergies and sleeping problems, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Sominex, Unisom); and medications used to treat depression, such as amitriptyline (Elavil). It's generally believed that confusion that may develop from anticholinergics clears up when someone stops taking the drugs. But now it appears that the medications are associated with a more permanent effect. A study published online Jan. 26, 2015, in JAMA Internal Medicine linked daily anticholinergic use among older adults for three or more years to an increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

The study didn't prove that anticholinergics cause dementia; it only found an association between people who take the medications and people who develop dementia. Nevertheless, the researchers suggest that doctors avoid prescribing anticholinergics when possible, or at least limiting the medications to the lowest doses possible. If you're taking an anticholinergic, talk to your doctor about the risks the medication poses, including the risk of falls as a result of confusion.

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