Posted on: March 18, 2020
For decades, the number of people diagnosed with dementia has been rapidly growing worldwide. Alzheimer’s is the most recognized sub-category of dementia. There is often the question of whether or not prescription drugs and dementia are connected.
You may think that’s because the baby boomer generation is aging, and dementia is just an unavoidable fact of life that comes along with aging. Fortunately, that’s not true.
Dementia can be caused by many things. It progresses in a person gradually over years, even decades. The vast majority are due to external influences. In another blog on causes and solutions for dementia, I explained how such things as lack of exercise, inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, mold, and toxins can lead to brain dysfunction.
In this blog, I’ll cover even more factors that may contribute to developing dementia. The more you know, the more you can protect your own brain and the brains of those you love. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the old saying goes.
Drugs: Risk vs. Benefits
As discussed in my previous dementia blog, the drugs developed to treat dementia have failed. They don’t work, because they don’t address underlying causes.
Drugs always have side effects. Doctors are responsible for evaluating a medication’s risks of potential side effects against its potential health benefits, to the best of their ability.
The trouble is that often times, the negative side effects of drugs only become well known after many years. Then, sometimes the drugs are taken off the market … and sometimes they aren’t. Sadly, beyond Vioxx and opioids, there are too many examples throughout history to list here.
Many Drugs are Linked to Dementia
Research has been building over the past 20 years about a commonly prescribed class of drugs called anticholinergics, some of which are linked to a much higher risk of developing dementia.
Anticholinergics include a wide range of drugs prescribed for everything from allergies, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and bladder problems.
Year after year, people took their prescribed medications, never realizing that the drugs were slowly damaging their brains until finally, they got a diagnosis of dementia. As the evidence mounted, scientists began connecting the dots and conducting studies on anticholinergic drugs and dementia.
Many researchers hypothesize that the aluminum in these medications may be to blame. Drug manufacturers commonly put aluminum (undeniably known as a nervous system toxin) in medications as a preservative or buffering agent. We also get some aluminum in our diet from water, food additives, cookware, and body care products. However, those who take aluminum-containing drugs consume vastly more aluminum than those who don’t.
The jury is still out on whether it’s the aluminum or other substances in medications causing the dramatic increase in dementia, but one thing is certain: many anticholinergics are implicated.
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The Tragedy of Acid-Blockers & Dementia
Although not part of the anticholinergic category, acid blockers (also known as proton-pump inhibitors, or PPIs) are widely prescribed … and they seem to damage the brain. The most common brand names are omeprazole (Prilosec), pantoprazole (Protonix), and esomeprazole (Nexium).
A large, eight-year study showed that chronic PPI users (at least one prescription every three months for 18 months) had a 44 percent increase in dementia. None showed dementia at the beginning of the study. Men were more affected than women. Doctors either didn’t monitor their patients and/or never told them they could decrease the dose, or the patients never asked. In 40 – 60 percent of this study’s 74,000 cases, it was determined that the patients didn’t need, and should never have continued, the PPIs long term.
Some people mistakenly believe they have high stomach acid because they experience what is commonly called “heartburn” or gastric acid reflux (GERD).
Often, what they really have is low stomach acid.
When stomach acid is too low, the food sits in the stomach, fermenting instead of digesting. As it ferments, acids bubble up in the esophagus, causing burping and burning. Unwittingly, people often reach for the acid-blockers, thinking they have too much stomach acid, never suspecting the cause is too little.
The result? They neutralize the very acids (what little they had) needed for proper digestion. Food moves through the gastrointestinal tract in a partially digested state, which can open the door for allergic reactions and nutrient deficiencies. All due to improper digestion.
What’s worse, some of these acid-blocking drugs also seem to cause dementia.
People often take these medications for years, which increases the risk, according to some studies.
Busy doctors often do not take the time to review all the prescriptions their patients are taking. The damaging negative side effects seem to build over time.
Randy* came to me due to having trouble with word recall. He’d had GERD for 20 years and was prescribed PPIs. He was also on cholesterol-lowering medication. At his annual check-up, his doctor said his cholesterol numbers looked perfect.
After a difficult divorce ten years earlier, Randy was prescribed antidepressants.
Gradually, he began having trouble remembering things. He couldn’t think of the word he was looking for. He came to me worried that he might be getting dementia.
“If that’s what’s happening to me,” he said, “is there any way I can stop this or even turn it around?” Few things scare people more than the idea of losing their memory.
I discovered that Randy had a perfect storm of many things that could be harming his brain. His PPI drugs had caused nutritional deficiencies, including B12 and trace minerals. His antidepressant was likely attributed to cognitive decline.
Although Randy’s doctor thought his cholesterol numbers were “perfect,” they were far from it.
The Cholesterol / Dementia Connection
Due to his meds, Randy’s cholesterol was down to 130. This is not good. Cholesterol that low is another risk factor for dementia.
Negative side effects of statin drugs can also be dangerous. Among other things, statins can contribute to dementia.,
In my next blog, I’ll discuss the importance of, and huge misconceptions surrounding, cholesterol.
Fortunately, Randy was willing to make changes in his lifestyle that improved his mental health as well as his overall physical health. With proper monitoring, he was able to eliminate all the medications he’d been taking.
Every aspect of his life improved, which is my goal for every patient.
The beauty of functional medicine is that it addresses root causes. Everything is connected to everything else. As one part begins to work better, everything else begins to work better too.
You Can Take Action Now
Scientific studies linking medications and cognitive decline often conclude with: “more studies are needed.” However, decades of studies already point to the dangers lurking in our medicine cabinets.
I see cases each week that demonstrate how brain health can be supported. I see cases of brain functioning improving, once the body is given what it needs to heal.
Protect yourself. Do all you can to support your brain health. Exercise, reduce inflammation, maximize your nutrition, balance your blood sugar and stress levels, and eliminate toxins (including any unnecessary medications). It’s important to review your prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
To be clear, I am not anti-pharmaceutical drugs. They have their place. What I am urging is a clear-eyed evaluation of what (and how many) pharmaceutical drugs you’re taking, why, and for how long you’ve been taking them. Reducing dosages and weaning off of some may be possible, but always with medical supervision.
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Never stop taking statin drugs without medical supervision, because doing so can increase your risk for a serious cardiovascular event. However, there are many natural alternatives to statins that are much more effective and safer.
Yes, it might sound overwhelming to do everything at once. But to begin is important. I am here to help you.
Remember, this is good news. Now we know more than we did before. With the proper information, prevention is possible. Dementia is not inevitable.
You now know more about how to protect yourself and your loved ones from this terrible affliction.
I look forward to helping you and your friends navigate a healthier future. Book an appointment with me today.
*Fictional name based on a real case study.