Anticholinergic drugs related to decline in memory for events

A new ARC study refines our understanding of the link between anticholinergic drug use in older people and memory problems.

Drugs with anticholinergic effects are prescribed for a wide variety of health problems, including but not limited to asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, bladder problems, depression, digestive distress, dizziness, motion sickness, and Parkinson’s disease. However, these drugs can have unintended effects, particularly in older people, including cognitive side effects.

Led by Goran Papenberg and Kristina Johnell, ARC researchers used six years of data on nearly fifteen hundred 60- to 90-year-olds from central Stockholm to investigate the connection between anticholinergics and problems with a number of cognitive domains (psychological or mental functions). These included episodic memory (memory for specific events the person has experienced), mental processing speed, semantic memory (memory of general knowledge), short-term memory, and verbal fluency.

Specific to this study was the care the researchers took to exclude multiple factors that might influence the results of their study, including diseases that cause cognitive problems similar to those linked with anticholinergics, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. They also controlled for age, sex, education, overall medication intake, physical activity, depression, cardiovascular risk factors, and cardiovascular disease.

Episodic memory – but no other cognitive domain tested – declined more in those who used anticholinergics than in those who did not. This finding is consistent with the literature and suggests that the cholinergic system is particularly important in the formation of episodic memories.

Read the abstract here.

Artaine (trihexyphenidyl), an anticholinergic drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease and side effects of other drugs. Image by Doctor Autumnal sky (Wikimeida Commons).