For a long time, doctors believed that forgetfulness and mental confusion were normal signs of aging. But scientists now know that memory loss is inevitable as we age. Indeed, the brain can grow new brain cells and reshape their connections throughout life.
Most people are familiar with some of the things that can impair memory, such as alcohol and drug abuse, heavy smoking, head injury, stroke, insomnia, severe stress, vitamin B12 deficiency, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.
But what many people don’t know is that many common prescription drugs can interfere with memory. Here are the top 10 types of criminals.
- Anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines)
Why they are prescribed: Benzodiazepines are used to treat various anxiety disorders, agitation, delirium, muscle spasms, and to prevent seizures. Because of their sedative properties, benzodiazepines are sometimes used to treat insomnia and anxiety associated with depression.
Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), flurazepam (Dalmane), lorazepam (Ativan), midazolam (Versed), quazepam (Doral), temazepam (Restoril), and triazolam ( H) ).
How they can impair memory: Benzodiazepines reduce activity in key areas of the brain involved in transferring events from short-term memory to long-term memory. In fact, benzodiazepines are used for anesthesia for this very reason. When added to the anesthesiologist’s cocktail of medications, patients rarely recall any discomfort from the procedure. Midazolam (Versed) has special properties.
Alternatives: Benzodiazepines should be used sparingly and, in my opinion, for short periods in the elderly. Older people take much longer to clear these drugs from their bodies than younger people, and as a result, older adults are at greater risk of not only memory loss, but also delirium, falls, fractures, and motor vehicle accidents.
If you are taking one of these medications for insomnia, mild anxiety, or irritability, talk to your doctor or other health care professional about treating the condition with other medications or non-drug treatments. If you have insomnia, for example, melatonin can help. When taken in doses of 3 to 10 mg before bedtime, melatonin can help restore healthy sleep patterns.
Consult your healthcare professional before stopping or reducing the dose of a benzodiazepine. Abrupt withdrawal can trigger serious side effects, so a healthcare professional should always monitor the process.
- Cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins)
Why they are prescribed: Statins are used to treat high cholesterol.
Examples include atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and simvastatin (Zocor).
How they can cause memory loss: Cholesterol-lowering drugs can impair memory and other mental processes by lowering cholesterol levels in the brain. In the brain, these lipids are important for building connections between neurons, the main link between memory and learning. (The brain actually contains a quarter of the body’s cholesterol.)
A 2009 study published in the journal Pharmacotherapy found that three out of four people who take these drugs experience adverse cognitive effects. The researchers found that 90 percent of patients who stopped statin therapy experienced improvements in cognitive function, sometimes within days. In February 2012, the Food and Drug Administration ordered drug companies to add a new label warning about memory problems to the prescribing information for statins.
Alternatives: Ask your doctor or other health care provider if you’re taking these drugs to treat slightly elevated LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and low HDL (“good”) cholesterol among older Americans without coronary artery disease. Instead, doctors recommend a combination of sublingual (under the tongue) vitamin B12 (1000 mcg daily), folic acid (800 mcg daily) and vitamin B6 (200 mg daily).