Common drugs taken by millions ‘increase risk of dementia by 50%’, experts warn

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DRUGS taken by up to two million Brits may raise dementia risk by half, a study reveals.

The medicines – known as anticholinergics – are used to treat bladder problems, depression and Parkinson’s.

Common drugs prescribed for bladder and mental health issues have been linnked to a higher risk of dementia
Common drugs prescribed for bladder and mental health issues have been linked to a higher risk of dementia
Getty – Contributor

They have already been linked to confusion, memory problems and falls in the elderly.

Now a Nottingham University study shows over-55s on high-strength doses for at least three years were 49 per cent more likely to develop dementia.

49 per cent more at risk

Lead researcher Professor Carol Coupland said middle-aged and older Brits should consider alternatives where possible.

She said: “Our study adds further evidence of the potential risks associated with strong anticholinergic drugs, particularly antidepressants, bladder antimuscarinic drugs, anti-Parkinson drugs and epilepsy drugs.

“The risks of this type of medication should be carefully considered by healthcare professionals alongside the benefits when the drugs are prescribed and alternative treatments should be considered where possible.”

1 in 10 dementia cases caused by medication

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, analysed the medical records of 59,000 patients with a diagnosis of dementia and 226,000 patients without.

The analysis estimates anticholinergic drugs could be responsible for one in ten cases of the disease – around 20,000 a year.

Only smoking is a bigger modifiable risk factor for dementia.

Anticholinergic drugs help to contract and relax muscles.

They work by blocking acetylcholine, a chemical that transmits messages in the nervous system.

Previous studies have estimated between 1.5 to two million people in England are likely to be taking the drugs.

1 million Brits set to have dementia

Around 850,000 Brits currently have dementia – and the figure is expected to hit one million within a decade.

There is currently no cure, although some drugs can limit the symptoms.

Not the first study to find a link

It’s not the first time these drugs have been linked to a decline in mental faculties.

Last year, a study published in the British Medical Journal also concluded that these drugs could lead to a heightened risk of dementia.

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Our own researchers have already shown a strong link between anticholinergic drugs and risk of dementia.

“This study builds on this information, showing that long-term, high-dose use increases risk of some dementias, particularly vascular dementia.”

Which drugs are risky?

The study said that prolonged use of strong anticholinergic medication was linked to a higher risk of dementia.

They help to contract and relax muscles.

They’re used to treat loads of things, from antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs, to antiparkinsons, bladder and epilepsy medications.

Last year, a study published in the BMJ found that antidepressants upped the risk of dementia.

Antidepressants listed included:

  • amitriptyline
  • dosulepin
  • paroxetine

Bladder drugs included:

  • tolterodine
  • oxybutynin
  • solifenacin

Anticholinergic drugs aren’t often used to treat Parkinson’s.

But ones that are anticholinergic include:

  • orphenadrine
  • procyclidine (Kemadrin)
  • trihexyphenidyl (Benzhexol)


He said current NHS guidance advises doctors to consider alternatives, particularly in the frail elderly.

Dr Jana Voigt, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is a growing body of evidence that suggests certain anticholinergic drugs are linked to an increased dementia risk.

“While finding a link between certain strong anticholinergic drugs and an increased risk of dementia, it doesn’t tell us if these drugs cause the condition.”

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