Cough syrups might lead to dementia

Can you believe that something as innocuous as an over-the-counter cough syrup can lead to brain damage and dementia? Apparently, it is all because of the anti-allergic mechanism of the cough syrups.

Most cough syrups are designed to help you with your runny nose in addition to reducing and relieving you of cough. They do this by blocking the acetylcholine receptors and are called anticholinergic drugs. This include some antihistamines, antidepressants, medications that control an overactive bladder and even some drugs that relieve symptoms of Parkinsons’ disease. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory while in the rest of the body, it stimulates muscle contractions.

cough syrup

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This recent study by Shelly Gray of University of Washington’s School of Pharmacy and other researchers tracked nearly 3500 men and women aged 65 for over seven years. They found that people who used these anticholinergic drugs were more likely to have developed dementia as those who didn’t use them. Taking anticholinergic drugs for the equivalent of 3 years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for 3 months or less.

Further, these drugs seem to have a stronger effect on older people than younger people. This is because with age, drug clearance from the kidney and liver takes more time; which means higher drug levels remain in the body for longer time. Also, as we accumulate fat, the way drugs are distributed or broken down in the body tissues also changes.

So, does that mean we should avoid these medicines completely? This study serves as a reminder to re-evaluate the drugs we are taking and decide if the body really needs it. One other way is to use the anticholinergic cognitive burden scale developed at the Indiana University School of Medicine while assessing these anti-cholinergic drugs.

Besides, with so many safe alternatives to chose one just needs to ask the friendly physician to help out a bit instead of just going for any over-the-counter drugs.

More information can be found here.

The original publication can be accessed here.

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