Many older adults take both prescription and over-the-counter medicines for allergies, mood, or sleep. Before doing so, however, make sure you consult with your doctor. There is a good chance these are classified as “anticholinergic drugs.”
What Are Anticholinergic Drugs?
Among the many chemicals that circulate from your brain to your body, there is one in particular called acetylcholine, and it is very important in regulating muscles in your intestines and bladder. It also impacts learning and memory. Anticholinergic drugs block this chemical.
Why Are Anticholinergic Drugs Used?
Drugs with anticholinergic properties have been used in medicine for decades to treat conditions such as:
diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disorders
dizziness and motion sickness
Parkinson’s disease symptoms such as involuntary movements
overactive bladder and urinary incontinence
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
This group of medications can also be used in tandem with anesthesia. Anticholinergics can:
maintain heartbeat regularity
lower saliva secretion
Anticholinergic Drugs and Seniors
As you age, especially after the age of 65, you have fewer neurons (brain cells) that can even absorb acetylcholine. Thus, if you decrease the amount of acetylcholine as a side effect of certain medications, it accelerates this process, and you have even less of this neurotransmitter circulating.
All medications –– whether prescription or over the counter –– are cleared from the body by the liver or kidneys. As you age, your liver and kidneys work more slowly, and there can be an unintentional buildup of these drugs in your system. (Always check with your doctor to make sure you are on the right dose of a medication for your age.) As such, you can have severe side effects from these anticholinergic drugs.
Even when used as instructed, anticholinergics can have some unpleasant side effects. Naturally, these will vary depending on the specific drug and dosage.
The side effects may include:
Another side effect is that these drugs can decrease sweat production and thereby raise your body temperature. This can lead to heatstroke.
Also, anticholinergic drugs are linked to an increased risk of dementia with long-term use. If you take these medications, make sure you check with your doctor about how long you need to take them.
Did you know most pharmacists will review your medications for free?
Older adults should frequently ask their pharmacist or doctor to audit their drugs. This can be particularly important for those taking multiple medications simultaneously. Medical professionals will screen for drug combinations that create high anticholinergic levels. Periodic and thorough reviews minimize the risk of adverse drug effects.
FYI: Be sure to inform your doctor or pharmacist of alcohol usage. Taking anticholinergic drugs with alcohol can result in unconsciousness or even death.
A Comprehensive List of Anticholinergic Drugs
Here’s a comprehensive list of Anticholinergic Drugs. This list is courtesy of The People’s Pharmacy and was included in Dr. Shelly Gray’s study at the University of Washington:
Other Anticholinergic Drugs (with Lesser Anticholinergic Effect)
Here are some other anticholinergic drugs to watch out for. Generally, they have a weaker anticholinergic effect. Still, you should be mindful of using these drugs, especially if you are already taking another anticholinergic; combining them can result in serious injury or even death:
If you’re taking any of the above drugs, contact a doctor immediately if you notice the following symptoms, as these can indicate a possible overdose:
clumsiness and slurred speech
inability to urinate
FYI: It is vitally important to remember that these side effects can build up over time; they may not happen immediately or overnight. It is possible to get a chronic overdose that may take weeks to notice.
Who Else Should Avoid Anticholinergics?
While older patients are more susceptible to the toxicity of anticholinergic drugs, they are not the only ones who should avoid this type of medication.
You should also avoid anticholinergic drugs if you have:
kidney problems or are on dialysis
hypertension (high blood pressure)
urinary tract blockage
increased heart rate (tachycardia)
severe dry mouth
The preceding lists of drugs above are daunting, and you might feel as though you’ll simply have to suffer through whatever condition for which they’ve been prescribed.
Luckily, this is not the case! There are safe and effective alternatives. Check with your doctor or pharmacist. Discuss your symptoms and get recommendations for other options that are safe for older adults.
Here are some safer alternatives to popular anticholinergics, based on a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society:
The first step, as with anything related to medication, is to consult with your doctor. They will likely know of the risks associated with older patients and anticholinergic medicines. If you keep them informed of any additional medications that you’re taking, including over-the-counter medicines, then you greatly cut down on the likelihood of an anticholinergic overdose. In addition, let your doctor know if you think you are experiencing side effects so he or she can monitor you and adjust your medication if needed. Always remember that safety comes first!
Amie has been writing about senior care products and services for the last decade. She is particularly passionate about new technologies that help improve the quality of life for seniors and their families. Seeing her parents and grandparents age made Amie ask herself, “Would this be good enough for my loved ones?” In her spare time, Amie enjoys outdoor adventures and spontaneous road trips. Learn more about Amie here