There’s a wide range of over-the-counter medications that have side-effects which can worsen the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Even seniors without either of these conditions should be careful.

Anticholinergics can cause dementia-like symptoms even in seniors without cognitive impairment. Here’s what you need to know about these common medications.

What’s Going On

Anticholinergics block a type of neurotransmitter used for memory, muscle functions, and learning. Many older adults have fewer neurotransmitters, as our bodies produce less of them as we age. You start to realize the problem when you pair this condition with an over-the-counter medication that blocks the job of neurotransmitters.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of neurotransmitters, think of them as the message relay stations that carry instructions throughout your brain, and then from the brain to the various parts of your body. Our brain and body can’t work correctly if these instruction relay systems aren’t operating. The result is symptoms indicating dementia.

Dementia symptoms worsen in seniors who take these medications. Symptoms may even start to show up in seniors without any previous symptoms. How serious is this? A Harvard Medical School study reports that taking an anticholinergic drug increased the risk of dementia in adults over the age of 65 by 54%.

The study followed those who took an anticholinergic drug either for 3 or more years, as well as those who took higher doses for a short period of time. The results were the same. What’s even more troubling is that these drugs often increase the risk of developing dementia in the future.


Seniors receptive to the negative effects of anticholinergic medications often experience both cognitive and physical side effects such as:

  • Sort-term memory problems
  • Difficulty with reasoning
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Constipation and dry mouth
  • Drowsiness
  • Overheating

Many of these symptoms can make existing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease conditions even worse.

Common Anticholinergics

You might be surprised by the common over-the-counter medications that contain anticholinergics. It includes widely used medications like sleep aids and antihistamines. It’s also commonly found in prescribed medications for the treatment of an overactive bladder, depression, and even COPD. Here’s a list of the types of over-the-counter and prescribed medications that often contain anticholinergics:

  • Allergy medications
  • Cold and cough medications
  • Motion sickness medications
  • Muscle spasm and pain medications
  • Acid reflux medications
  • Antipsychotics
  • Asthma medications

It’s important to seek out medical advice before you do anything if you suspect a senior is having reactions to anticholinergics. Whenever evaluating or discussing medications for a senior with their doctor, it’s important to always reference over-the-counter medications and other prescribed medications so they have a full picture to base their decisions upon.