Taking This Popular OTC Drug May Spike Your Dementia Risk, Researchers Say

You probably have it your medicine cabinet.

With no known cure for dementia, researchers, scientists, and the medical community have long been focused on preventative measures and early diagnosis of this devastating condition. Recognizing the early symptoms is crucial, since a speedy diagnosis allows for the possibility of more effective treatment or management.

Researchers are also learning more about the kinds of foods, drinks, and medications that can potentially spike your risk of dementia—sometimes with surprising results. For example, studies show that drinking diet soda and eating highly processed foods can heighten your risk of cognitive decline. Certain medications may spike your risk, too, including one popular over-the-counter (OTC) drug in particular. Read on to find out what it is.

READ THIS NEXT: This Common Medication Could Be Hurting Your Brain, New Study Says.

Someone in the world develops dementia about every three seconds.

Senior man looking out of a window.
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Dementia statistics paint a grim picture, especially given that the effects are so devastating. According to Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), over 55 million people suffer from dementia worldwide, with that number predicted to nearly double every two decades, reaching 139 million in 2050.

"Dementia" is an umbrella term that refers to the cognitive decline that occurs with many different diseases, including Alzheimer's, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia. "Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain," explains the Mayo Clinic. "Depending on the area of the brain that's damaged, dementia can affect people differently and cause different symptoms."

Different factors can increase the risk of dementia.

Doctor speaking to senior patient.

"Dementia mainly affects older people, although there is a growing awareness of cases that start before the age of 65," says ADI. The Mayo Clinic lists some other risk factors that can't be changed in addition to age, including having a family history of the condition.

Many other factors can lead to cognitive decline, including alcohol and drug abuse, tobacco use, head injuries, stroke, lack of sleep, stress, and vitamin deficiency, the experts at AARP write. The site also notes that various prescription drugs can have a negative affect on your brain health.

Certain antihistamines may have an impact on your cognitive health.

Doctor using a digital tablet to discuss a brain scan.
Charday Penn/iStock

Antihistamines are one type of medication that may increase the risk of dementia. "Antihistamines are a class of drugs commonly used to treat symptoms of allergies," explains the Cleveland Clinic. "These drugs help treat conditions caused by too much histamine, a chemical created by your body's immune system."

Antihistamines may be linked to cognitive decline because of how they affect acetylcholine. "Acetylcholine is a type of chemical messenger, or neurotransmitter, that plays a vital role in the central and peripheral nervous system," according to Verywell Mind. "It is important for muscle control, autonomic body functions, and in learning, memory, and attention."

One antihistamine that is thought to have an effect on this chemical messenger is the popular OTC drug Benadryl.

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Studies show that Benadryl and some other antihistamines may be linked to cognitive decline.

Pink antihistamine capsules in blister pack.

Benadryl is an anticholinergic medication, which means it blocks the effects of acetylcholine. Because "acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is important for cognitive function, it plays a key role in memory and learning," Alice Williams, MD, a physician based in Las Vegas, tells Best Life. "Thus, when Benadryl blocks the effects of acetylcholine, it can interfere with memory and learning."

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that "higher, cumulative anticholinergic use is associated with an increased risk for dementia," advising that "Efforts to increase awareness among health care professionals and older adults about this potential medication-related risk are important to minimize anticholinergic use over time."

AARP lists alternatives to Benadryl, including Vistaril, Clistin, and Dimetane. "Newer-generation antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec) are better tolerated by older patients and do not present the same risks to memory and cognition," they write.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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