A class of medication used by an estimated 1 in 4 older Americans can increase the risk of dementia in people age 55 and older, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Anticholinergics treat a wide variety of conditions including depression, asthma, motion sickness, overactive bladder, insomnia, gastrointestinal cramps, and irritable bowel syndrome. The drugs work by decreasing the activity of muscles in the gut and reducing the production of sweat, saliva, digestive juices, urine and tears. They also help balance the production of dopamine, which plays a role in maintaining mood, movement, attention, problem solving, motivation and pleasure.

Researchers observed data of more than 200,000 people who took a strong anticholinergic for three years, and found they had a 49 percent increased risk of dementia. Dr. Tara Narula with CBS News said that elderly may be more susceptible to side effects of these medications because they are often taking multiple medications. She suggested that patients with dementia not take anticholinergics at all.

Dr. Narula noted that the study is correlational and does not show cause-and-effect. Many of the anticholinergics such as antidepressants and sleep aids also were likely prescribed to people who had dementia all along because depression and sleep deprivation are often early signs of dementia.

“At every [doctor] visit you should be going over all of your medications and saying, do I need to be on this? Is it working for me, and what are the risks and benefits and are there alternative agents that might be good for me and don’t assume if it’s over-the-counter that it’s safe,” Dr. Narula said.

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