Study Suggests Link Between Anticholinergics and Cognitive Disorders

A recent study has uncovered troubling side-effects from a family of common drugs known as anticholinergics that could have wide-reaching ramifications for millions of Americans who take these drugs on a regular basis.

Anticholinergics are drugs that are used to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from gastrointestinal disorders like gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and diarrhea to respiratory disorders like asthma, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They are also used to treat conditions like insomnia and vertigo.

Examples of commonly-used anticholinergics include: Dimetapp, Zyprexa, Unisom, Paxil, and Benadryl. Countless doses of these drugs and others like them are sold each year and consumed on a daily basis by millions.

Now, a study suggests that anticholinergics could be linked to dementia and cognitive impairment when used later in life – and can pose a serious threat to cognitive health in adults.


The study in question examined brain scales of 451 adults (average age: 73) along with analyzing the results of cognitive tests. No participants had previously exhibited signs of dementia or Alzheimers. A portion – 60 subjects – had been using anticholinergics for at least a month when the study was conducted.

One startling result was the fact that brain thickness and volumes in areas of the brain critical to cognitive function and performance were noticeably reduced. Also, glucose processing levels were lower in areas that are typically associated with Alzheimer’s.

The worrisome implication is that using these drugs in older adults can either cause or accelerate cognitive decay, resulting in crippling disorders like dementia and others. This is not the first time such a link was suggested; researchers have theorized for years the link between these drugs and cognitive function, and the relationship has been demonstrated in previous studies.

The researchers were careful to point out, however, that the risk of taking anticholinergics may be outweighed by their benefits, which means each person taking these drugs – or those in care of them – need to be aware of the risks and choose accordingly.

All adults who may be susceptible to these risks need to consult with their physicians, and – if possible – explore alternative therapies that do not incorporate the same risk as anticholinergics appear to do.

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