Prescription and over-the-counter medications are useful for many maladies, from aches and pains to diabetes to heart conditions. Unfortunately, the very medications that treat one problem can affect the body in ways that lead to other issues. There is so much focus today on the problems of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and the plain old brain fog that seems to accompany aging. Therefore, it is helpful to know which medications might also affect the brain and memory. If you notice memory issues and are taking any of the medications on this list, be sure to talk with your physician. Your doctor can advise you as to whether or not they could be triggering or worsening any of your memory issues.
The same drug that kills off the bacteria causing a raging infection can also affect your brain cells. A certain class of antibiotics, called fluoroquinolones, may lead to impaired mental function. The Food and Drug Administration has increased warning label requirements on these drugs. which include medications such as levofloxacin (Levaquin), ciprofloxacin (Cipro), and moxifloxacin (Avelox). These labels must now warn of mental health side effects, including decreased attention span, agitation, confusion, and memory loss. The negative effects of these drugs on memory join other adverse effects on joints and tendons. For some patients, the risk is worth the benefit when treating some bacterial infections.
Tricyclic antidepressants include medications like amitriptyline (Elavil), clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), and nortriptyline (Pamelor). These medications treat depression by increasing the levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin available in the brain. Increased levels of these brain chemicals relieve depression, but they can increase fatigue, confusion, and memory function. While many patients find these medications to be helpful in treating their depression, there are other treatment options available with less risk to memory function.
Over-the-counter medications often take advantage of the effects of antihistamines on the release of histamine in the body. Histamine is discharged in response to allergens or viruses. The desired effect of antihistamines is decreasing symptoms such as runny nose or itchy, watery eyes. However, these medications can act on other histamine receptors as well. Undesired side effects can be blurry vision, dry mouth, and confusion. Memory loss can be another unintended side effect of these agents. Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is an antihistamine commonly found in over-the-counter allergy products and cold remedies. Furthermore, it is even combined with acetaminophen in products like Tylenol-PM used for sleep.
It shouldn’t be surprising that medications that affect brain chemistry can have an effect on brain function. Benzodiazepines are medications that increase the effect of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. Since GABA decreases the activity of neurons (nerve cells in the brain), it has a calming effect on the brain. This leads to decreased anxiety and tension. Unfortunately, this same calming effect may play a part in reducing memory function. Commonly used benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium).
Antihypertensive agents are medications that lower blood pressure. The beta-blocker class of antihypertensives works to slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure by blocking the effects of epinephrine. Their effects on norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain can also cause them to have a negative effect on memory. Atenolol (Tenormin), metoprolol (Lopressor), propranolol (Inderal), and sotalol (Betapace), are a few of these medications. Other antihypertensive agents are available that may be less likely to affect your memory and cognition. However, you should never discontinue blood pressure medications without first checking with your doctor.
Statins are medications that lower cholesterol by blocking an enzyme used by the liver to produce cholesterol. Atorvastatin (Lipitor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), fluvastatin (Lescol), and simvastatin (Zocor) are some of the most commonly prescribed statin medications. While these medications are very effective at lowering cholesterol, they also have side effects that may include muscle pain, liver damage, and memory loss. Not every patient experiences these negative side effects, and often the benefits of lowering cholesterol must be weighed against the risk of side effects.
Drugs called anticholinergics are often used to treat the embarrassing problem of incontinence. They work on the bladder by preventing acetylcholine from causing the involuntary muscle contractions that cause urine to leak from the bladder. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in other functions. Blocking the effects of this chemical messenger can result in memory loss and confusion. Darifenacin (Enables), oxybutynin (Ditropan XL, Gelnique, Oxytrol), tolterodine (Detrol), and trospium (Sanctura) are just a few of the anticholinergic medications available. Other common side effects are dry mouth and constipation.
Narcotic painkillers provide relief from pain by blocking pain signals in the central nervous system. The same chemical messengers that send pain signals from your brain are also involved in memory and cognition. Blockage of these signals can lead to memory issues. Fentanyl (Duragesic), hydrocodone (Norco), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), morphine, and oxycodone (Oxycontin) are all narcotic pain meds that can lead to noticeable effects on memory. These effects are most commonly seen in patients with chronic conditions requiring long-term pain management. In contrast, short-term use of pain medications does not seem to have a permanent effect on memory.
Dopamine agonists, used to treat Parkinson’s disease, are medications that affect brain levels of the chemical dopamine. They improve mobility and decrease shakiness and unsteadiness in Parkinson’s patients. They are also used to treat the involuntary leg movements of patients with restless leg syndrome. Some patients may experience memory loss and confusion while taking these medications. Dopamine agonists include apomorphine hydrochloride (Apokyn), bromocriptine (Parlodel), pramipexole dihydrochloride (Mirapex), and ropinirole (Requip).
Anticonvulsants are medications used to treat seizures. These medications may also be used for nerve pain, mood disorders, and other ailments. They work by depressing the signal system of the central nervous system. While decreased signaling means decreased brain activity that results in seizures, it also can mean negative effects on memory and cognition. Cognition involves the process of acquiring new information and comprehending that information. Anticonvulsants include medications like carbamazepine (Tegretol), gabapentin (Neurontin), lamotrigine (Lamictal), oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), and pregabalin (Lyrica).
The same benzodiazepine medications used to treat anxiety are also used as sleeping pills, with the same possibility of negative effects on memory. In addition, another class of sleeping aids is called the nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics. These drugs, sometimes called “Z” drugs, induce sleep by acting on the same chemical pathways in the brain the benzodiazepines affect. Affecting chemical pathways in the brain can lead to changes in memory and comprehension. Examples of these medications are eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), and zolpidem (Ambien).