Are Some Pharmaceuticals Triggering Dementia? - RxLeaf
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Are Some Pharmaceuticals Triggering Dementia?

Emily Robertson

A Harvard study uncovers the link between anticholinergic drugs (Benadryl, Artane, Cogentin, Thorazine, and more) and increased risk of dementia.

Close to 50 million people, worldwide, are living with dementia right now. Yet, the cause of it remains mysterious and inconclusive. Recently, there has been some debate that prescriptions are contributing to memory loss and mind fog. Research has shown that cannabis can increase cognitive functioning, and may even slow or reverse altogether, the symptoms of dementia.

older couple holding hands

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often used interchangeably. To be clear, dementia is the umbrella term, while Alzheimer’s is one of the causes of dementia. Though there are many causes of dementia, with hereditary concerns applying a small risk, there are some factors that are major players. Lack of mental exercise is one of these. Living a routine lifestyle with little to no change for several years (or decades) can prohibit stimulus in the brain and cause sedentary brain activity. And now, a new risk, anti-cholinergic drugs.

Dementia is related to impaired cognitive functioning. This can come in the form of memory loss (particularly short term memory); trouble finding words; reduced ability to concentrate, plan, organize, or problem solve; disorientation, especially regarding the date, time, or location; and impairment of visuospatial skills involved in the ability to judge dimensions and distances.

It is a serious condition and can cause death. But of more immediate concern, patients are incredibly uncomfortable and frustrated. This means that their moods can change dramatically and without much warning. They can become more irritable and quick to lash out. Alternatively, dementia patients may become depressed and isolate themselves in order to hide their decline. Try to stay patient if you’re supporting someone with dementia – it is a dramatic and severely disorientating life change.

Do prescription drugs contribute?

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence that shows that prescription drugs directly cause dementia. However, there is some evidence that they contribute to other symptoms which then, in turn, contribute to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Think of it like this. If you’re a smoker, you’re at risk of high cholesterol. Smoking itself may not contribute but as a smoker, you’re more likely to put extra salt on your food due to loss of taste buds, which then causes high cholesterol.

Prescription drugs may cause a similar cascade toward dementia. According to suggestions made by Harvard University, anticholinergic drugs contribute to cognitive decline, particularly when taken for three or more years.

This is because drugs like this are hard on your liver. The longer you take them, the more your tolerance builds up, the more you need to take for them to be effective. As you age, this is compounded by a decline in liver functioning.  The liver, like any other part of the body, begins to lose efficiency and effectiveness as it ages. When this happens, your body struggles to metabolize the drugs and can no longer remove the drugs from your system.

Think of it like a coffee filter. If you use the same filter over and over again, and never empty the beans, eventually the filter and hot water will no longer be able to remove the caffeine from the grounds and you’ll be left with a pile of highly potent brown muck. But think too what that does to the filter – eventually, it gets too heavy and can’t support the grounds; it breaks down.

This is what happens with your liver. When it does that, the drugs’ effects become more potent like the coffee grounds, and can cause issues with cognitive functioning, potentially leading to dementia.

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How does cannabis help?

Many of the prescription drugs that are in the anti-cholinergic class – like anti-depressants – treat conditions that can also be treated by cannabis. So far, research has only found positive mental benefit from taking cannabis medicine – including improved cognitive functioning.

Furthermore, cannabis can help relax the moods of, and increase focus for, those struggling with dementia. As mentioned, dementia is stressful for those suffering from it. It causes confusion and dramatic mood switches. Cannabis can help level out moods and will definitely help with sleep.

Cannabis can also helps repair damage to the liver, which can in turn, help the body better metabolize prescriptions.

If you’re struggling with dementia, you do have options. Treatment for this condition is still sparse, but cannabis can help you. Talk to your doctor about this option for treatment.

Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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