Recent studies link some everyday medications to brain function.
There are more than 400,000 people living with dementia in Australia, with that number expected to increase to more than half a million by 2025, according to Alzheimer’s Australia.
While there is no cure as yet, there are some drugs that help patients manage their symptoms.
Then there are other medications whose links to dementia are being studied.
The well-known factors that increase a person’s risk of dementia include high cholesterol, alcohol abuse, smoking, genetics and high blood pressure.
But researchers are investigating other causes and recent studies have shown a link between some surprising everyday medications and vitamin deficiencies and dementia.
Reflux and heartburn can be particularly painful experiences. The problem is usually treated with a schedule of drugs called proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs). These PPIs decrease acid production in the stomach to prevent reflux. If taken for a short time these drugs are relatively harmless, but doctors have become increasingly concerned with their long-term use.
A German study last year found that continued use of the drugs related to an increased risk of dementia. The study of 74,000 Germans aged over 75, found that regular PPI users had a 44 per cent higher risk of dementia than those not taking PPIs.
Sleeping pills and allergy-relief medication
A University of Washington study found that over-the-counter hayfever tablets, sleeping pills and some asthma medication raised the risk of developing dementia by 60 per cent.
The drugs are known as ‘anti-cholinergics’ which work by blocking acetylcholine, a chemical involved in the transmission of electrical impulses between nerve cells. People with Alzheimer's disease are known to lack acetylcholine and it is feared the pills may exacerbate or trigger the condition.
Last year, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine believed they discovered a new reason for the link.
The researchers scanned the brains of people who had taken this medication continuously for an average of 2.5 years and found they had smaller brain sizes and decreased metabolism compared to people who did not use the medication. The group using the medication also scored lower on cognitive and memory tests.
Lack of vitamin D
Despite Australia’s plentiful access to natural sunlight most of the year round, over 30 per cent of the country suffers from mild, moderate or severe vitamin D deficiency. This can be acute among the elderly population, who often find themselves housebound due to other medical complications.
Some research studies have been able to link a severe lack of vitamin D with an increased risk of dementia.
An international research team studied 1658 seniors for six years and found that those that were severely deficient in vitamin D were more than twice as likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s. Participants who were only mildly deficient had an increased risk of 53 per cent.
Another smaller study of 382 participants with an average age of 75 also found links between the vitamin deficiency and the disease. In this group, some had dementia, some display mild cognitive decline and others were healthy. The researchers took blood tests every year for five years and found those who had been diagnosed with dementia had a lower vitamin D average than the other groups.
They also showed that participants with lower levels of vitamin D demonstrated a greater decline in cognitive ability.
If you think you are vitamin D deficient you can try spending more time outdoors, or if this is a problem for you there are supplements available. If you prefer a more natural approach, vitamin D is found in:
- fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, swordfish and salmon)
- foods fortified with vitamin D, such as dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, yogurt and cereals
- beef liver
- cod liver oil
- swiss cheese
- egg yolks
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