This article was updated on May 10, 2021.
Sure—getting older can lead to slower brain function and memory loss. But did you know many medications may be contributing to your forgetfulness, diminished brain function, and brain fog? Some of these drugs can also cause imbalance and lead to falls, making them even more dangerous.
Common drugs that can cause memory loss
Although many drugs can cause or contribute to memory loss, the following are some of the worst offenders:
- Benzodiazepines. These drugs are commonly prescribed for anxiety. They’re also prescribed for dementia, muscle spasms, seizure prevention, and insomnia. Benzodiazepines cause memory loss by dampening chemical activity in the part of the brain that transfers short- and long-term memory. Examples: Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan.
- Statins. Statins are prescribed to lower high cholesterol, but a quarter of the body’s cholesterol is in the brain. When this cholesterol is diminished, it can lead to trouble processing information, learning, and recalling memories. A 2009 study published in Pharmacology reported that approximately 75 percent of patients who take these drugs reported memory loss. However, stopping the drugs under their doctor’s supervision usually led to complete memory remission, sometimes within days. Examples: Lipitor, Lescol, Crestor, and Zocor.
- Narcotics. Narcotic painkillers, also called opioids, are prescribed for moderate to severe chronic pain. They work by slowing pain signals to the central nervous system and blunting emotional responses to pain. These drugs, however, are highly addictive–a quality that has led to a nationwide opioid epidemic and hundreds of thousands of deaths across the country. Patients and doctors are encouraged to discuss alternatives to pain management before resorting to opioids if possible. Examples: Fentanyl, Norco, Vicodin, Dilaudid, OxyContin, and Percocet.
- Anticonvulsants. Antiseizure medications are also often prescribed off-label to treat bipolar disorder, mood disorders, mania, nerve pain, and can sometimes aid in weight loss. They reduce nerve signals in the central nervous system, which can cause memory loss over time. Examples: Tegretol, Neurontin, Lamictal, Lyrica, and Depakote.
- Beta-blockers. If your blood pressure gets too high, your doctor might put you on a beta-blocker to slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. These drugs can also treat chest pain, tremors, and migraines. Beta-blockers “block” important chemicals (norepinephrine and epinephrine) on their way to the brain and can affect memory over time. Examples: Tenormin, Inderal, Betapace, and Timoptic.
The worst offender: anticholinergics
One type of drug that causes memory loss more often than most drugs is anticholinergic drugs. They work by blocking the action of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, in the brain. Anticholinergics are used to treat a range of conditions, such as allergies, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, and Parkinson’s disease.
Anticholinergic drugs are most often used for urinary incontinence because they affect neurons which encourage muscle contraction, but they also influence learning capabilities and memory storage and retrieval. What makes them even more dangerous is that many over-the-counter (OTC) drugs are considered anticholinergics, like Benadryl, Unisom, Tylenol PM, Advil PM, and more. Many doctors don’t even warn patients that their medication may have severe consequences if taken for a long time.
Warning: anticholinergic drugs are especially dangerous for seniors to take as seniors already have diminished neurons, and the old a person is, the longer drugs will stay in their body. The American Geriatrics Society strongly recommends against older Americans using anticholinergic drugs, as older adults are more likely to experience dangerous side effects.
Harvard Medical School has linked prolonged use of anticholinergic drugs to dementia, especially in seniors.
Anticholinergics also have the potential to cause:
- Heat exhaustion,
- Overdose when taken with alcohol, and
- The worsening of additional medical conditions.
Side effects of anticholinergic drugs include:
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
- Urine retention
Find a complete list of anticholinergic drugs here.
Talk to your doctor
If you are on one of the medications that can cause memory loss or slow brain function, do not stop taking the medication without consulting your doctor. Doing so could be dangerous to your health. Ask your doctor if there are any alternatives available to protect your brain health, and make a plan together to get off of the drug if you can.