Prescription drugs may be affecting your memory

elderly lady taking a pill

You should be aware of the potential side-effects
of taking prescription drugs

The episodic use of prescription drugs may cause memory problems for the elderly, according to recent research at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM, Montreal Geriatric University Institute).

Around 90% of those over 65 regularly take at least one prescription medication, and a sizable proportion report increased memory problems and cognitive impairment. The research at the university suggests there may be a link between the two.

Research into side-effects

Dr. Cara Tannenbaum led an international team of researchers to investigate which medications among the regularly used prescription drugs are most likely to be the cause of the memory problems. The results from 162 experiments on medications known to have the potential to affect the brain indicated that they did in fact cause memory loss or other cognitive problems, such as difficulty concentrating. These potential side-effects often go unnoticed in otherwise healthy individuals.

Side effects of prescription drugs

What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs (chemical substances that affect brain functioning, causing changes in behaviour, mood and consciousness) that act as central nervous system depressants. In some cases, benzodiazepines can have unwanted side-effects, such as tension, nervousness, panic and anxiety, sweating, restlessness and nightmares.

All the 68 trials on benzodiazepines (often used to treat insomnia or panic and anxiety) showed that these substances consistently lead to memory problems and difficulty concentrating. Additionally, the effects mirrored the dosage, i.e. the higher the dose, the greater the effect.

Twelve of the tests focused on prescription drugs including antihistamines and 15 on tricyclic antidepressants, and they proved to affect concentration and other cognitive skills, such as processing information. The findings of this research support the Revised Beers Criteria published early in 2012 by the American Geriatrics Society, which urged that all sleeping pills, first generation antihistamines and tricyclic antidepressants should be avoided at all costs by the elderly.

Dr. Tannenbaum considers it very important that seniors are aware of these findings.

“Seniors can play an important role in reducing the risks associated with these medications. Patients need this information so that they are more comfortable talking to their doctors and pharmacists about safer pharmacological or non-pharmacological treatment options,”

she explained. She further stressed that each case should be assessed on merit:

“Despite the known risks, it may be better for some patients to continue their medication instead of having to live with intolerable symptoms. Each individual has a right to make an informed choice based on preference and a thorough understanding of the effects the medications may have on their memory and function.”

The research was undertaken using randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of individuals with no pre-existing neurological disorders. Study quality was independently appraised by two investigators.

Panic and anxiety

I think it’s fair to say most of us were aware that taking prescription drugs could potentially have harmful side-effects. Common among them are insomnia and panic and anxiety, sometimes leading to depression.

These side-effects aren’t news to most people – in fact, the potential side-effects are generally listed on the leaflet that comes with the medication, although I’m sure most people don’t study the leaflet in detail, if at all. But even if you never even glance at the leaflet, the research has been done and the facts are here for you in black and white: these common prescription medications do have potentially harmful side-effects, memory impairment among them.


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