These 10 Drugs Can Cause Memory Loss

Caution! These 10 Drugs Can Cause Memory Loss – Life Reimagined – By Dr. Armon B. Neel, Jr.  •  February 10, 2016

For a long time doctors dismissed forgetfulness and mental confusion as a normal part of aging. But scientists now know that memory loss as you get older is by no means inevitable.

Indeed, the brain can grow new brain cells and reshape their connections throughout life.

…what many people don’t realize is that many commonly prescribed drugs also can interfere with memory. Here are 10 of the top types of offenders.  

Antianxiety drugs (Benzodiazepines)

Why they are prescribed: Benzodiazepines are used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, agitation, delirium and muscle spasms, and to prevent seizures. Because benzodiazepines have a sedative effect, they are sometimes used to treat insomnia and the anxiety that can accompany depression.

How they can cause memory loss: Benzodiazepines dampen activity in key parts of the brain, including those involved in the transfer of events from short-term to long-term memory. Indeed, benzodiazepines are used in anesthesia for this very reason. When they’re added to the anesthesiologist’s cocktail of meds, patients rarely remember any unpleasantness from a procedure. Midazolam (Versed) has particularly marked amnesic properties.

Cholesterol-lowering drugs (Statins)

Why they are prescribed: Statins are used to treat high cholesterol.

How they can cause memory loss: Drugs that lower blood levels of cholesterol may impair memory and other mental processes by depleting brain levels of cholesterol as well. In the brain, these lipids are vital to the formation of connections between nerve cells — the links underlying memory and learning. (The brain, in fact, contains a quarter of the body’s cholesterol.)

Antiseizure drugs

Why they are prescribed: Long used to treat seizures, these medications are increasingly prescribed for nerve pain, bipolar disorder, mood disorders and mania.

How they can cause memory loss: Anticonvulsants are believed to limit seizures by dampening the flow of signals within the central nervous system (CNS). All drugs that depress signaling in the CNS can cause memory loss.

Antidepressant drugs (Tricyclic antidepressants)

Why they are prescribed: TCAs are prescribed for depression and, increasingly, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain, smoking cessation and some hormone-mediated disorders, such as severe menstrual cramps and hot flashes.

How they can cause memory loss: About 35 percent of adults taking TCAs report some degree of memory impairment and about 54 percent report having difficulty concentrating. TCAs are thought to cause memory problems by blocking the action of serotonin and norepinephrine — two of the brain’s key chemical messengers.

Narcotic painkillers

Why they are prescribed: Also called opioid analgesics, these medications are used to relieve moderate to severe chronic pain, such as the pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

How they can cause memory loss: These drugs work by stemming the flow of pain signals within the central nervous system and by blunting one’s emotional reaction to pain. Both these actions are mediated by chemical messengers that are also involved in many aspects of cognition. So use of these drugs can interfere with long- and short-term memory, especially when used for extended periods of time.

Parkinson’s drugs (Dopamine agonists)

Why they are prescribed: These drugs are used to treat Parkinson’s disease, certain pituitary tumors and, increasingly, restless legs syndrome (RLS).

How they can cause memory loss: These meds activate signaling pathways for dopamine, a chemical messenger involved in many brain functions, including motivation, the experience of pleasure, fine motor control, learning and memory. As a result, major side effects can include memory loss, confusion, delusions, hallucinations, drowsiness and compulsive behaviors such as overeating and gambling.

Hypertension drugs (Beta-blockers)

Why they are prescribed: Beta-blockers slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure and typically are prescribed for high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms. They’re also used to treat chest pain (angina), migraines, tremors and, in eyedrop form, certain types of glaucoma.

How they can cause memory loss: Beta-blockers are thought to cause memory problems by interfering with (“blocking”) the action of key chemical messengers in the brain, including norepinephrine and epinephrine.

Sleeping aids (Nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics)

Why they are prescribed: Sometimes called the “Z” drugs, these medications are used to treat insomnia and other sleep problems. They also are prescribed for mild anxiety.

How they can cause memory loss: Although these are molecularly distinct from benzodiazepines (see No. 1 above), they act on many of the same brain pathways and chemical messengers, producing similar side effects and problems with addiction and withdrawal. The “Z” drugs also can cause amnesia and sometimes trigger dangerous or strange behaviors, such as cooking a meal or driving a car — with no recollection of the event upon awakening.

Incontinence drugs (Anticholinergics)

Why they are prescribed: These medications are used to relieve symptoms of overactive bladder and reduce episodes of urge incontinence, an urge to urinate so sudden and strong that you often can’t get to a bathroom in time.

How they can cause memory loss: These drugs block the action of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that mediates all sorts of functions in the body. In the bladder, anticholinergics prevent involuntary contractions of the muscles that control urine flow. In the brain, they inhibit activity in the memory and learning centers. The risk of memory loss is heightened when the drugs are taken for more than a short time or used with other anticholinergic drugs.

Antihistamines (First-generation)

Why they are prescribed: These medications are used to relieve or prevent allergy symptoms or those of the common cold. Some antihistamines are also used to prevent motion sickness, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and to treat anxiety or insomnia.

How they can cause memory loss: These medications (prescription and over-the-counter) inhibit the action of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that mediates a wide range of functions in the body. In the brain, they inhibit activity in the memory and learning centers, which can lead to memory loss. 

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