Memory Problems? Check Your Medicine Cabinet

By Jennifer R. Roberts, M.A.

Many of us worry about memory loss as we age, and we look for new ways to prevent or minimize it. Did you know that many prescriptions commonly found in the medicine cabinets of adults over 65 can increase your risk of cognitive decline?

Age slows us down, and that includes our circulatory and digestive system, liver, and kidneys, all of which help metabolize or process medication. Slower metabolism results in the build-up of chemicals in the body, which poses a serious concern when taking certain medications or more than one.

Antihistamines and antidepressants
Do you suffer from allergies or depression? Medications commonly used to treat allergies, nausea, and depression, as well as some drugs used for urinary incontinence and some muscle relaxants can have temporary and long-term negative effects on memory and cognitive function for older adults. For example, you may have taken Benadryl for allergies or been prescribed an antidepressant such as amitriptyline. Researchers have found that taking two or more drugs in this category (known as anticholinergics) can cause temporary confusion. Continuous use doubles the risk of developing dementia.

Anxiety and insomnia
Xanax, Valium, and other drugs used to treat anxiety, muscle spasms, seizures, and sleep problems can increase the risk of toxic build-up in brain tissue. These types of drugs (called benzodiazepines) can impair semantic memory (for facts, meanings, and general knowledge), recognition memory (for previously encountered people, objects, and situations), and the formation of new memories.  Benzodiazepines also are associated with decline in attention, working memory (the ability to temporarily remember new information), and IQ.   

Pain Pills
Opioids are highly addictive narcotics prescribed for pain, such as codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, and oxycodone.  Opioids have been reported to impair short-term memory, which persists after discontinuing the medication, and the ability to learn new information. 

Other Medications That Affect Cognitive Function
In addition to the previously listed medications, many other types of drugs are associated with memory and cognitive impairment.  These include statins (to treat high cholesterol), antiseizure drugs, beta-blockers (to treat high blood pressure), and sleep aids such as Ambien.  Though the effects of these drugs on cognition are less consistent, they still may increase your risk of cognitive impairment.

If you think your medications may be causing memory loss or other cognitive impairments, do not stop taking the medication without first consulting with your primary care provider.  In many cases, different medications, behavior modifications, or long-term psychotherapy can be effective alternatives.  If you are concerned about your memory, the UCCS Aging Center conducts baseline screenings and full neuropsychological evaluations. Please call (719) 255-8002 to make an appointment.

Jennifer Roberts, M.A., is a UCCS clinical psychology doctoral student and psychology trainee.  Her current practicum/internships are at the UCCS Aging Center and Peak Vista Community Health Centers.  For more information, contact Jennifer at or call the UCCS Aging Center at 719-255-8002.





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