The National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke cites that as many as five million Americans ages 65 and older may have Alzheimer’s Disease, “and that number is expected to double for every five-year interval beyond age 65.” While there are common risk factors for diseases like Alzheimer’s - and other forms of dementia - such as age, alcohol use, smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and genetics, there are other less known, and more surprising, risk factors.
A JAMA Neurology study found a correlation between over-the-counter sleep aids and cognitive decline. A particular class of these drugs, known as anticholinergics, is associated with poorer cognition and changes in brain structure and function. These drugs include allergy medicine like Benadryl, pain medication like Tylenol PM, ,and even some antidepressants and urinary incontinence treatments. The complete list can be found here.
The study, however, did not measure the amount of each medicine participants took, but, rather, the fact that they did take them over time. Researchers found an even greater increase in risk in those who took more than one kind of anticholinergic. Shannon Risacher, assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine and contributor to the study, writes that these drugs block the ability of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to act with the receptors, and that if people simply stopped taking these meds, their risk factor fell to normal levels. This is a hypothesis only - they have not found definitive evidence that the two are related.
Lack of Vitamin D
The study also found that older adults with starting blood levels of vitamin D less than 20 ng/mL had an increased risk of cognitive decline in episodic memory, memory of past autobiographical events; semantic memory, memory of specific learned facts or general knowledge; visuospatial ability, orienting objects in the space around you using visual cues like depth perception and finding your way home; and executive function, which involves reasoning, problem solving and following directions.
Researchers do not yet know if vitamin D supplements can slow or prevent cognitive decline in those with low levels. But older adults who skew toward lower levels should ask their physician for supplements as a preventative measure. Vitamin D can also be found in fatty fish like tuna and salmon, dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, beef liver, egg yolks and yogurt.
Heartburn medicine with proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) are among the most commonly used drugs, but a study in Germany has found a possible link among older adults between dementia and heartburn meds like Prilosec and Prevacid (the full list can be found here). While the study concluded that avoiding these PPI drugs may prevent the development of dementia, skeptics feel the findings are inconclusive because those who tend to take these types of drugs are typically at a higher risk already (smokers, heavy drinkers, obese, etc.).
The best medicine is to be preventative. PPI drugs are fine to take occasionally, but speak with your physician first and be wary of taking them in the long term.