There are many kinds of prescription drugs and OTC medications that cause memory loss. Learn the steps you must take to preserve your memory.
Prescription drugs cause over 128,000 deaths per year in the United States and another 200,000 deaths in Europe. (1)
They cause another 1.9 million people to experience side effects so severe they must be hospitalized. (2)
Adverse drug reactions are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US.
More emergency room visits result from prescription medications than from illicit drugs, alcohol, and recreational drug use combined. (3)
It’s very clear that medications carry risks and one of the most common side effects is memory loss.
The 3 Groups of Prescription Drugs That Harm Your Memory the Most
If you are taking any prescription medication, the odds are that it falls into one of the following three categories of drugs known to cause memory loss and other cognitive problems:
The “Anti” Drugs
If you take a drug that starts with “anti,” such as antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antibiotics, antispasmodics, or antihypertensives, it’s likely that it will affect your acetylcholine level.
Acetylcholine is the primary neurotransmitter involved with memory and learning.
When you’re low in acetylcholine, you become forgetful, you can’t concentrate, or think of the right word.
Acetylcholine deficiencies are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s, and medications for these disorders work by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain. (4)
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Drugs that block the action of acetylcholine are known as anticholinergic.
Common side effects of anticholinergic drugs include:
- Blurred vision
- Dry mouth
- Difficulty starting and continuing to urinate
- Loss of bladder control
Low acetycholine can lead to a group of symptoms that resembles dementia including mental confusion, brain fog, incoherent speech, delirium, blurred vision, memory loss, and hallucinations. (5)
The side effects of anticholinergic drugs are more pronounced in seniors due to the natural reduction of acetylcholine production associated with age.
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Prescription sleeping pills like Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta are notorious for causing memory problems.
Ever since these drugs hit the market, people have been reporting “Ambien amnesia” or “Ambien blackouts” during which they have walked, eaten, and even driven their car in their sleep with zero recollection of it the following day. (6)
Dr. Kirk Parsley is a physician, former Navy SEAL, and a sleep expert for the US Navy.
He found a large number of Navy SEALS were using sleeping pills and made a startling discovery while studying EEGs of their brains. (7)
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Their brain wave patterns showed these men were unconscious as if they were drunk or in a coma, but were not actually asleep.
In an interview on the TV show 20/20, Charlie Sheen openly called Ambien “the devil’s aspirin.” (12)
Memory loss is now required to be listed as a side effect on the label.
One-quarter of your brain is composed of cholesterol.
Cholesterol is necessary for memory, learning, and fast thinking.
Cholesterol is needed to make neurotransmitters — chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
So it is not a total surprise that cholesterol-lowering drugs negatively affect the brain.
Statins have been pushed on the public because they are among the most profitable prescription drugs in the world. (13)
One in two senior men and one in three senior women are taking these drugs. (14)
20 Prescription Drugs That Cause Memory Loss
Here is a list of medications known to have memory loss as a possible side effect:
- for Parkinson’s — scopolamine, atropine, glycopyrrolate
- for epilepsy — phenytoin or Dilantin
- painkillers — heroin, morphine, codeine
- sleeping pills — Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata
- benzodiazepines — Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Dalmane
- antibiotics (quinolones)
- high blood pressure drugs
- beta blockers (especially those used for glaucoma)
- antipsychotics — Haldol, Mellaril
- tricyclic antidepressants
- barbiturates — Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, phenobarbital
- chemotherapy drugs
This list was assembled by Richard C. Mohs, PhD, former vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. (15)
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12 Popular Over-the-Counter Medications That Cause Memory Loss
Not all medications that cause memory loss are prescription-only.
Many popular over-the-counter (OTC) drugs also cause memory loss by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
- Advil PM (pain and sleep)
- Benadryl (for allergies)
- Claritin (for allergies)
- Dramamine (for motion sickness)
- Excedrin PM (for pain and insomnia)
- Nytol (for insomnia)
- Pepcid AC (acid reflux)
- Sominex (for insomnia)
- Tagamet (acid reflux)
- Tylenol PM (for pain and insomnia)
- Unisom (for insomnia)
- Zantac (acid reflux)
A large study found that seniors who take OTC medications like Benadryl are at significantly increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. (19)
Long-term use was not required.
Memory loss from these remedies was noticeable in as little as 60 days. (20)
This is bad news for the millions of people who rely on diphenhydramine — the generic name for Benadryl — for allergies, colds, and insomnia. (21)
Many OTC products for treating allergies, colds, cough, sinus problems, skin irritations, insomnia, headache, and pain contain diphenhydramine.
You can find a complete list of OTC medicines that contain diphenhydramine at Drugs.com.
What You Can Do Next
Are you taking any of these prescription medications?
Do you believe they are affecting your memory?
Then we recommend following the advice of Armon B. Neel, Jr, PharmD, CGP, FASCP.
He is a geriatric pharmacist who has devoted his career to guiding health professionals and older adults in the appropriate use of medication.
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He is the past author of AARP’s “Ask a Pharmacist” column and is the author of Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?
If you take medications you suspect are causing cognitive problems, here are the steps he recommends you take:
- Take inventory of what you are taking. Write down every medication, dosage, and when you started taking it.
- Talk to your doctor about what you are taking, how much you are taking, and why you are taking it. If you have more than one physician, have this conversation with each of them.
- Ask if there are any non-drug approaches you can take instead. Find out the consequences of stopping any medication.
- If there are any medications that can be eliminated, discuss a plan for getting off them and follow the plan.
- You should always get all your medications filled by the same pharmacy. Talk to your pharmacist about your regime to make sure there are no known interactions.
- Read Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?. Reviewers on Amazon call it “a life saver.”
- Enlist the help of a consultant or geriatric pharmacist. You can find one in your area through the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists.
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You can get more information from Neel’s website MedicationExpert.com including how to arrange an in-person or phone consultation with him about your medications.
Lastly, use the lifestyle advice you find here on our website.
Even if you have to stay on your medication, you can lessen the load on your brain by taking proactive steps such as eating a brain-healthy diet, getting the sleep and physical exercise your brain needs, managing stress, and taking the right brain supplements.
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If you regularly take an OTC medicine for allergies, pain, insomnia or acid reflux, get serious about switching to natural remedies which can provide relief — without increasing your risk of dementia.
Give your brain the healthiest possible environment to stay mentally sharp in spite of your medications.
Drugs That Cause Memory Loss: The Bottom Line
Prescription medications are a double-edged sword.
Obviously, they are needed sometimes, but doctors are often too eager to write prescriptions for drugs that can affect your memory and other cognitive skills.
Become an educated patient and understand exactly what you are taking, why you are taking it, and the risks involved.
Be proactive about talking to your doctor and your pharmacist if you believe your prescriptions, or OTC remedies, are causing your memory loss.