Age-related memory loss runs in my family. Growing up, I remember my Great Aunt Clair telling us kids about her son who lived on the moon and who regularly sent her pennies. Aunt Clair never married or had children, but was sweet and we loved her stories nonetheless. My maternal grandfather also suffered from dementia, and now my mom. So it’s reasonable to say that I’m interested in all things memory related.
I’m a big fan of staying healthy through lifestyle choices and eating well, and read anything I see about risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Until recently, there haven’t been many clues as to ways to reduce your risk of developing memory loss in later life–with one exception. Research in recent years has pointed to physical activity as a possible factor in reducing your chances of developing Alzheimer’s. Anecdotally, my dad was physically active until his death at age 87. He was always as sharp as a tack–despite having Aunt Clair and her equally forgetful sisters upstream in his family tree.
Now however, research has given us another piece to the memory loss puzzle, and it seems to be residing right in your medicine cabinet. Research findings in JAMA Neurology this week have noted a link between many medications and Alzheimer’s. Most disturbing is that the medications are both commonly used and many can be found over the counter (without a prescription).
It seems that the biggest offender are drugs that have an anticholinergic affect. These drugs work by inhibiting the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in your brain. Noted changes beyond decreased acetylcholine include a lower metabolic activity in the memory part of your brain as well as structural changes in the brain as noted on MRI examinations.
Here’s the kicker–common antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) are anticholinergics. And in case you didn’t know, the PM ingredients in Tylenol PM or Advil PM, or any PM products and many over-the-counter sleep aids is Benadryl. But that’s not all. There is a long list of medications that have this anticholinergic effect, and many of them are regularly prescribed, or worse, found in the aisles of your drug store.
There’s more. Some antidepressants, such as Paxil have been related to memory loss. In addition, the class of antianxiety drugs called benzodiazepines are also on the memory loss black list. If you suffer from heartburn or indigestion, you may also be taking medications that affect your memory too, as the class of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s), such as Prilosec, Prevised, and Nexium are also found to negatively affect memory.
I have to admit, after reading about these medications and their link to Alzheimer’s and memory loss, my first, selfish thought is to examine what I have been taking. Did that occasional Tylenol PM I took a couple of years ago set me up for forgetfulness when I’m 70? What about those two weeks every June when I take Loratadine for my allergies to Cottonwood trees? Have I doomed myself to telling the kids about pennies from the moon?
My second, and hopefully more rational thought is that many of the conditions for which people take antihistamines, benzodiazepines, and proton pump inhibitors can be treated with Chinese medicine. Here are a few examples:
-Antihistamines are generally taken most frequently for seasonal allergies. In Chinese medicine, most allergies are considered to be an energy weakness in which your body’s protective “shield” isn’t strong, allowing allergens to affect your health. Many people who suffer from allergies head them off by scheduling a handful of acupuncture treatments prior to their allergy season. In most cases, that’s enough to keep them fairly comfortable and sneeze-free during hay fever season.
-Beyond allergies, Benadryl is most commonly used as a sleep aid, because it makes you drowsy. Truth be told, I have been guilty of popping them for a few nights after a bout of sleeplessness several years ago, which is a very symptom-based way of handling the problem. The only permanent solution is to deal with the underlying cause, and in Chinese medicine, there are several reasons why you don’t sleep, from Liver stagnation to Yin depletion.
–Good digestion is a key component to good health and clear thinking in Chinese medicine. If you’re talking proton pump inhibiting medications, it means that your digestion is funky. Whether it’s a Liver and Stomach disharmony or Stomach heat, acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help improve your digestion dramatically, and in most cases eliminate your need to take these medications.
The bottom line is that while memory loss is a scary thing, it’s even more disturbing to think that the medications you’ve been taking may have contributed to or caused it. With this new information about the drug and Alzheimer’s link, it’s time to take a close look at what’s in your medicine cabinet.