A new study from Indiana University in the USA is raising more questions about the use of many common medications – including medications that many people are taking for migraine, or for a related condition. Could taking these medications actually hurt your brain?
The short answer is a resounding – maybe. But there does seem to be a clear link.
I really appreciated Kerrie Smyres’ article on this topic. I’ll summarize here, but I encourage you to read it here: Some Migraine Drugs Linked to Cognitive Impairment, Dementia in Older Adults
The drugs are known as anticholinergic medications, and some are more “anticholinergic” than others. These drugs, to varying degrees, block a chemical known as acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in your body.
Some examples of these include:
- amitriptyline (Elavil)
- brompheniramine (Dimetapp)
- dimenhydrinate (Dramamine, Gravol)
- methocarbamol (Robax)
- paroxetine (Paxil)
As you can see, many of these are very common medications.
Previous studies have linked the use of these drugs with dementia and other types of cognitive impairment. The new study (Association Between Anticholinergic Medication Use and Cognition, Brain Metabolism, and Brain Atrophy in Cognitively Normal Older Adults) confirms that there is a link with cognitive impairment/decline.
Now, what does that mean, “linked”? It means that older patients who take these kinds of medications on a regular basis seem to be more likely to experience decline in their ability to think clearly. But why? Is it the medication? Or could it be related to some of the diseases that lead them to take the medication? Or could there be another factor these patients have in common?
These questions have not been answered, and it will be very difficult to answer them in the near future. At this point, there is an increased motivation to avoid prescribing too many of these medications to older patients.
For those of us who are younger, just what is the risk? We don’t know. There seems to be little doubt that the benefits outweigh the risks for certain patients who are greatly helped by these medications. Plus, a healthy lifestyle may slow or even reverse cognitive decline, including brain shrinkage. So if a carefully prescribed medication keeps you active and eating healthy, the dangers could even cancel each other out.
The fact of the matter is that there are many dangers in drugs – even over the counter drugs. We could go over many studies and many warnings that we’ve heard in the past about other types of drugs. But the advice seems to be the same. Don’t panic – instead, minimize the drugs you take when you can, and weigh the risks when you and your doctor feel a medication is necessary.
That being said, we’ll be watching for more studies on anticholinergic medications, because they could help us better understand where the risk is and how to avoid it.
For more information, including some more specific drugs in this category, read Kerrie Smyres’ article above. Also see IU scientists: Brain scans link physical changes to cognitive risks of widely used class of drugs