There are many kinds of prescription drugs and OTC medications that cause memory loss. See if any drugs you take can cause problems and what to do about it.
According to Harvard University, prescription drugs cause over 128,000 deaths per year in the United States.
This does not count deaths in nursing homes which account for another estimated additional 350,000 deaths annually.
More emergency room visits result from prescription medications than from illicit drugs, alcohol, and recreational drug use combined.
It’s very clear that medications carry significant risks and one of the most common risks is memory loss.
The 3 Worst Categories of Prescription Drugs for Memory Loss
If you take any prescription medications that are affecting your memory, it likely falls into one of three major categories of drugs known to cause memory loss and other cognitive problems: anticholinergics, sleeping pills, or cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Here’s an in-depth look at each.
1. Anticholinergics: The “Anti” Drugs
Acetylcholine is the primary neurotransmitter of memory and learning.
When you’re low in acetylcholine, you become forgetful and can’t concentrate.
You may struggle to find the right words when you speak.
Acetylcholine deficiencies are associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s; medications for these disorders work by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain.
" Not all drugs that cause memory loss are prescription medications. Many popular over-the-counter (OTC) drugs also cause memory loss by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Drugs that block the action of acetylcholine, causing low brain levels of acetylcholine, are known as anticholinergics.
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It’s easy to pick out many drugs that are anticholinergics because their common classifications usually start with “anti” as in:
Common side effects of anticholinergic drugs include:
- blurred vision
- difficulty urinating
- dry mouth
- loss of bladder control
Low acetylcholine can lead to a cluster of symptoms that resembles dementia, including mental confusion, brain fog, incoherent speech, delirium, blurred vision, memory loss, and hallucinations.
Anticholinergic Drugs and Seniors
The side effects of anticholinergic drugs are more pronounced in seniors due to the natural decline in acetylcholine production that occurs with age.
The increased risk of dementia from anticholinergic drugs is significant, around 30%.
The use of anticholinergic drugs is also known to increase the risk of falls and death in the elderly.
Anticholinergic Drug Lists
Rather than list all of the drugs known to be anticholinergic here, we’ve assembled a few reputable anticholinergic drug lists.
Not all anticholinergic drugs are equally hazardous, so these lists rate drugs by their level of anticholinergic activity — mild, moderate, or severe.
Leo Galland, MD, a renowned functional medicine pioneer, has published an extensive list of anticholinergic substances that includes drugs and herbal remedies.
Additionally, you can check all the medications you are currently taking to determine your anticholinergic burden with this physician-created online calculator.
If your anticholinergic risk is high, we urge you to bring this to your doctor’s attention.
2. Sleeping Pills
Prescription sleeping pills like Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta are notorious for causing memory problems.
Ever since these drugs came on 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 no recollection of it the following day!
Kirk Parsley, MD, is a physician, former Navy SEAL, and a sleep expert for the US Navy.
He found that a large number of Navy SEALs were using sleeping pills and made a startling discovery while studying EEGs of their brains.
Brainwave patterns showed that, under the effect of sleeping pills, these men were unconscious but not actually asleep; it was as if they were drunk or in a coma.
According to Dr. Parsley’s observations, this means that these men were not experiencing the restorative sleep their brains needed to consolidate new memories and to maintain and repair itself.
3. Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs
Cholesterol-lowering medications might just be the single worst group of drugs for your brain.
Memory loss is now required to be listed as a side effect on the label of cholesterol-lowering drugs, like Lipitor and Crestor, known as statins.
When researchers examined the medical records of nearly a million people, they found that statin use increased the risk of memory loss four-fold.
And it’s not just statins, other kinds of cholesterol-lowering drugs are also strongly linked to increased forgetfulness.
Here’s why lowering cholesterol is a problem for your brain.
Cholesterol is necessary for memory, learning, and fast thinking.
It is needed to synthesize neurotransmitters, chemicals that brain cells use to communicate with each other.
So it is not such a surprise that cholesterol-lowering drugs negatively affect the brain.
And some research has found that high total cholesterol reduces the risk of dementia in the elderly.
You read that right.
Statins have been pushed on the public because they are among the most profitable prescription drugs in the world.
One in two senior men and one in three senior women are prescribed these drugs.
And if drug companies have their way, even more people will be prescribed statins in the future.
US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines recommend that everyone over the age of 40 should be screened for taking a statin drug even if they have no history of heart disease.
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More Rx Drugs That Cause Memory Loss
Richard C. Mohs, PhD, is the Chief Scientific Officer for the Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation.
He is the author of more than 350 scientific papers, including those involving clinical trials that led to the approval of cholinergic drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
According to Dr. Mohs, additional medications known to cause memory loss include:
- barbiturates (Amytal, Nembutal, Seconal, phenobarbital)
- benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Dalmane)
- beta blockers (especially those used for glaucoma)
- chemotherapy drugs
- painkillers (heroin, morphine, codeine)
- Parkinson’s (scopolamine, atropine, glycopyrrolate)
12 Common OTC Remedies That Cause Memory Loss
Not all drugs that cause memory loss are prescription medications.
Many popular over-the-counter (OTC) drugs also cause memory loss by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
These are some common anticholinergic OTC remedies known to cause memory loss:
- Advil PM (pain and insomnia)
- Benadryl (allergies)
- Claritin (allergies)
- Dramamine (motion sickness)
- Excedrin PM (pain and insomnia)
- Nytol (insomnia)
- Pepcid AC (acid reflux)
- Sominex (insomnia)
- Tagamet (acid reflux)
- Tylenol PM (pain and insomnia)
- Unisom (insomnia)
- Zantac (acid reflux)
A large study found that seniors who take OTC medications are at significantly increased risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
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Long-term use is not required.
Memory loss from these remedies was noticeable in as little as 60 days.
This is bad news for the millions of people who rely on diphenhydramine, the generic name for Benadryl, to treat allergies, colds, and insomnia.
Many OTC remedies for 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.
Minimizing Medication-Induced Memory Loss: An Expert-Recommended Plan
Are you taking any of these prescription medications?
Do you suspect that 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.
He previously was the author of AARP’s “Ask a Pharmacist” column and is the author of the eye-opening exposé Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?
Expert-Recommended Plan to Minimize Medication-Induced Memory Loss
Take inventory of what you are taking.
Write down every medication, dosage, and when you started taking it.
Talk to Your Doctor
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.
Find Non-Drug Approaches
Ask if there are any non-drug approaches that you can use instead.
Find out the consequences of stopping any medication.
Can Medications Be Eliminated?
If there are any medications that can be eliminated, discuss a plan for stopping them and follow the plan.
Talk to Your Pharmacist
You should always get all your medications filled by the same pharmacy.
Talk to your pharmacist about everything you take to make sure that there are no known interactions.
In the meantime, you can check for interactions right now using one of the online drug interaction checkers in our Mental Health Resources Guide.
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Find a Consultant Pharmacist
If you are a senior, consider enlisting the help of a senior care pharmacist, also called a consultant pharmacist.
Senior care pharmacists are specially trained to review their patient’s medications to ensure appropriate, effective, and safe use.
You can find one in your area through the American Society of Consultant Pharmacists.
Lastly, use the lifestyle advice for brain health that’s here on Be Brain Fit.
Even if you must stay on all your medications, you can help your brain by taking proactive steps such as:
- Eating a brain-healthy diet
- Getting the sleep and physical exercise your brain needs
- Managing your stress
- Taking appropriate brain supplements
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: Take the Next Step
Prescription medications are a double-edged sword.
Obviously, they are sometimes needed, but doctors are often too eager to write prescriptions for drugs that can affect 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 memory loss.