Anticholinergic Drugs and Dementia | Natural Health Blog

Could Benadryl Cause Dementia?


Article Summary:

  • Anticholinergic drugs (a very common prescription) have been linked to an increased risk of dementia.
  • Anticholinergic drugs are prescribed to treat everything from allergies to depression and Parkinson’s disease.
  • There are natural options that can help you avoid certain anticholinergic drugs.

Anticholinergic Drugs and Dementia

Could the pharmaceutical medications in your medicine cabinet be raising your risk for developing dementia? Unfortunately, that’s an entirely possible scenario. New research suggests that very common drugs—used to treat a wide variety of conditions including allergies, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and more—might be associated with dementia in older people.

The study, which took place at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, found that certain anticholinergic drugs are associated with a 50 percent higher risk of dementia when taken daily for three years or more.1Coupland, Carol A.; et al. “Anticholinergic Drug Exposure and the Risk of Dementia.” JAMA Internal Medicine. 24 June 2019. Accessed 30 June 2019. These results are based on an investigation that analyzed the data from medical records of more than 225,000 adults without dementia and close to 59,000 with dementia. All the subjects were at least 55 years old, and the average age among those with dementia was 82.

Almost 57 percent of the participants with dementia and 51 percent of those without it had been prescribed one or more strong anticholinergic drug at some point from one to 11 years earlier. Those with dementia had an average of six anticholinergic prescriptions, compared to four for those with no sign of dementia. And while the forms of these drugs with milder effects were not shown to have an impact on dementia risk, the volunteers who had taken a stronger anticholinergic drug for three years or more had a 50 percent greater risk of developing dementia.

Find Out Which Drugs are Anticholinergic

You may not be familiar with the term “anticholinergic” when it comes to medication. But this type of pharmaceutical medication is very common, and you might even have some in your home right now. They block the chemical acetylcholine from transmitting messages from nerve cells to other cells of the body, which affects muscle contractions and areas of the brain involved in learning and memory.

Milder anticholinergic drugs include those used to treat gastrointestinal disorders and antihistamines like Benadryl. But those are less worrisome at this point, since they were not found, at least in this study, to raise dementia risk. (That’s not to downplay the fact that all anticholinergics have serious side effects including dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, and increased heart rate.) Cognitive problems, however, were shown to be associated with the longer-term use of stronger forms of anticholinergic medications, such as antidepressants, bladder antimuscarinic drugs, epilepsy medications, and drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

Avoiding Anticholinergic Drugs

Before you get too stressed out if you have been taking one of these pharmaceutical medications, keep in mind that there were plenty of subjects who had taken them and did not show any signs of dementia. What’s more, the risk was greatest in older populations, those taking only the stronger forms of the drug, and only for a prolonged period of time. So, if you’ve used these drugs in the past but only infrequently or for short periods, your dementia risk may not be increased at all.

That being said, however, anticholinergic drugs are known to affect memory and learning, even when taken for a short duration; but they do not “necessarily” contribute to an “overall” pattern of cognitive decline. However, the researchers suggest that because of their widespread use, as much as 10 percent of dementia diagnoses may be due to the effects of anticholinergic drugs, which is astounding. With an estimated five million dementia patients in the United States today, that would be 500,000 whose cognitive functions have been unnecessarily affected.

It is essential to speak with your doctor about stopping these medications if you’ve been taking them. There are non-pharmaceutical options to consider in their place in many cases. For example, if you’ve been taking an antidepressant, you can discontinue its use under your physician’s supervision, and try talk therapy and daily supplementation with vitamins, amino acids, and natural remedies that include herbs such as St. John’s wort, Ginkgo, and Ashwagandha and nutraceuticals such as L-theanine and SAMe. Formulas containing these ingredients have been found to boost mood and relieve depression without negative side effects and risk of cognitive decline over time. And don’t forget exercise. Studies have shown that exercise works better than antidepressants at relieving depression and anxiety.


1 Coupland, Carol A.; et al. “Anticholinergic Drug Exposure and the Risk of Dementia.” JAMA Internal Medicine. 24 June 2019. Accessed 30 June 2019.