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Can common sleep aids cause dementia?

Taking certain OTC and prescription drugs regularly may put you at higher risk, studies shows.

Article Author: Johnny Woodhouse

Article Date:

alarm clock and assorted pills
There are safer alternatives other than pills to help people get the sleep they need.

More than a third of American adults are not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, according to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.

People with transient or short-term insomnia often reach for over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids that have a sedating effect and are generally safe.

But recent studies raise the likelihood that some popular sleep aids that contain an antihistamine may be associated with increased dementia risk. The studies are focused on a class of drugs called “anticholinergic” that block a chemical in the brain involved in memory and learning.

People commonly use sleep aids that contain the anticholinergic drug diphenhydramine (think Benadryl and Dramamine). While safe to use, taking them for an extended time could significantly impact your risk of developing dementia.

“Just because it’s an over-the-counter medication doesn’t mean it is safe and free from interactions,” said Raphael Balbino, MD, a family medicine physician and geriatrician with the Baptist AgeWell Center for Senior Health who specializes in dementia and managing multiple medications.

“When I discuss with my patients that there are safer alternatives to help them sleep and that sleep aids can increase the risk of dementia in the future and for older adults, even the risk of delirium, most of them are open to working with me to switch from that medication.

“In fact, in some cases, patients have shown marked improvement in their reasoning after they stop taking these sleep aids,” he added.

One study found that long-term use (three years or more) of anticholinergic sleep aids and allergy medication increased the risk of dementia.

These recent findings don’t mean people should stop taking medication because they are concerned about developing dementia. Always consult your physician before stopping any prescribed medication. It’s also a good idea to review the medications you are taking with your physician before making any changes.

There are a number of natural sleep remedies that can be used as a substitute. Even foods high in melatonin, such as bananas, ginger and red cherries, can be consumed before bedtime to help induce sleepiness.

Natural allergy remedies also include a charcoal/HEPA filter for your home and even the use of essential oils in a diffuser such as Eucalyptus oil.

“For most cases of allergies, the non-drowsy antihistamines and the nasal steroid sprays are enough to help with symptoms,” said Dr. Balbino.

The best way to reduce your risk for dementia is by not smoking, getting regular exercise and sticking to a healthy diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids.

If you are having trouble sleeping, talk to your primary care doctor. If you don’t have one, call 904.202.4YOU.

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