Take Note: Scientists Warn Hay Fever and Sleeping Drugs Shrink Brain and Raise Dementia Risk


Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine, United States, have published a new research paper warning that taking hay fever and sleeping drugs could shrink the brain and raise dementia risk.

Hay fever is an allergy caused by pollen or dust in which the mucous membranes of the eyes and nose are inflamed, causing running at the nose and watery eyes. Dementia, on the other hand, is a persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury, and marked by memory disorders and impairing reasoning.

The scientists particularly warned aged people to avoid common hay fever, allergy and sleeping tablets because they have discovered a link between the drugs and brain damage.

Woman looking out of window.

This is not the first time a study is warning us about the harmful side affects of these drugs. In 2015, a study in the United States found that taking a daily dose of pills like, Clarityn, Piriton and Nytol, for at least three years, raised the chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease by more than 60 per cent. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. It accounts for about 62 per cent of all diagnosed cases.

Generally, the drugs are known as anticholinergics. According to experts, the drugs work by blocking acetylcholine, a chemical involved in the transmission of electrical impulses between nerve cells.

In the United Kingdom for example, anticholinergic drugs are sold over the counter. Telegraph reports that the drugs are prescribed as sleep aids, allergy medication, and for many chronic diseases including hypertension, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Lead researcher, Dr Shannon Risacher said “These findings provide us with a much better understanding of how this class of drugs may act upon the brain in ways that might raise the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. These findings might give us clues to the biological basis for the cognitive problems associated with anticholinergic drugs. Given all the research evidence, physicians might want to consider alternatives to anticholinergic medications if available when working with their older patients.”

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Although previous research has raised concerns about the use of anticholinergic drugs and mental impairment in aged people, this is the first time a study is detailing the level of damage the drugs could cause.

According to the method the researchers used to find out if the drugs were having a physical impact, they asked 451 aged people to complete memory and cognitive tests. The researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans to assess brain structure, and Positron Emission Tests to measure brain metabolism.

The cognitive tests revealed that 60 participants who were taking anticholinergic drugs, performed worse than older adults not taking the drugs on short-term memory and some tests of executive function, which cover a range of activities such as verbal reasoning, planning and problem solving. They were also diagnosed with cognitive impairment, a prelude to dementia.

Also, anticholinergic drug users showed lower levels of glucose metabolism, a sign of brain activity in both the overall brain and in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the region of the brain associated with memory, which has been identified as affected early by Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers further found that the brains of those taking anticholinergic drugs, were on average four per cent smaller, while the cavities inside the brain were 12 per cent larger.

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The researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology that the use of anticholinergic medication is associated with increased brain atrophy, dysfunction and clinical decline.

They therefore advised that the use of anticholinergic medication among aged people, should be discouraged if alternative therapies are available.  Based on the study, dementia charities are urging that doctors should be made aware of the study and the drugs’ potential harm.

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