10 Medications That May Cause Memory Loss
As efforts are being poured into treating more acute conditions, memory problems, memory loss, confusion, and a decline in cognitive abilities are often overlooked as a normal part of aging. But experts say that memory loss and declining cognitive health are not inevitable with age. The human brain can grow new brain cells and form new nerve connections well into old age.
Some things are known to cause memory problems and cognitive symptoms, such as alcohol and drug abuse, stroke, head injuries, sleep deprivation, vitamin B12 deficiency, severe stress, and conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. But what most people don’t know is that many commonly prescribed medications also can affect memory. Please continue reading to learn about some medications that may cause memory loss.
What prescription drugs are linked to memory loss?
Both over-the-counter and prescription drugs can cause memory problems as side effects. Some medications have been linked to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. We'll describe some commonly prescribed medications that can affect memory or cause memory loss in the following paragraphs.
Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety drugs used to treat anxiety, insomnia, delirium, agitation, and muscle spasms. Examples include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), lorazepam (Ativan), and temazepam (Restoril).
Benzodiazepines slow down activity in the central nervous system, including areas of the brain involved with the transfer of short-term memory to long-term memory. Benzodiazepines are prescribed to older adults with caution because they stay in their systems longer due to their reduced kidney and liver function. A buildup of benzodiazepines can lead to memory loss, delirium, and other cognitive issues.
Anticholinergic drugs are used to treat overactive bladder and urinary incontinence. Examples of incontinence drugs include oxybutynin (Ditropan XL, Oxytrol, Gelnique), darifenacin (Enablex), solifenacin (Vesicare), trospium (Sanctura), and tolterodine (Detrol). Besides prescription drugs, Oxytrol for Women is an anticholinergic skin patch available over the counter.
Anticholinergic drugs work by blocking the action of acetylcholine, an important chemical messenger involved in many functions in the human body. An anticholinergic drug can relieve symptoms of urinary incontinence by preventing involuntary contractions or spasms of bladder muscles. However, anticholinergic agents can also affect the central nervous system, specifically the memory and learning centers in the brain. The risk of memory loss from anticholinergic medications is higher when used long-term or taken with other anticholinergic drugs. Older adults are at increased risk of adverse effects from anticholinergic drugs due to their reduced kidney and liver functions.
Non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics are a drug class used to treat insomnia, commonly referred to as sleeping pills. Examples include zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata), and eszopiclone (Lunesta).
Although sleeping pills are not the same as benzodiazepines, they affect some of the same brain chemical messengers and nerve pathways in the central nervous system. Sleeping pills can cause amnesia (memory loss) and severe psychiatric side effects such as behavioral change, sleep disturbance, and depression.
Statins are commonly prescribed medications that may cause memory loss. These are cholesterol-lowering drugs that are prescribed to people with high cholesterol. Examples include simvastatin (Zocor), atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), pravastatin (Pravachol), lovastatin (Mevacor), and fluvastatin (Lescol).
Cholesterol-lowering drugs are believed to impair memory and other cognitive processes because they cause a decrease in cholesterol not only in the blood but also in the brain. In fact, the human brain contains one-fourth of the body’s total cholesterol. The brain needs lipids to form connections between nerve cells, which are essential for memory, learning, and overall brain health.
Certain medications used to treat seizures (convulsions or epilepsy), nerve pain, mood disorders, and bipolar disorder can cause memory problems. Examples include valproic acid (Depakote), carbamazepine (Tegretol), lamotrigine (Lamictal), oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), topiramate (Topamax), levetiracetam (Keppra), acetazolamide (Diamox), gabapentin (Neurontin), pregabalin (Lyrica), ezogabine (Potiga), rufinamide (Banzel), and zonisamide (Zonegran).
Antiseizure drugs work by slowing down signals in the central nervous system. Like all drugs that slow down brain activity, they too can cause memory loss.
Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are prescribed for depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, chronic pain, nerve pain, smoking cessation, hot flashes, severe menstrual cramps, and other hormone-mediated conditions. Examples include amitriptyline (Elavil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), desipramine (Norpramin), clomipramine (Anafranil), imipramine (Tofranil), doxepin (Sinequan), trimipramine (Surmontil), and protriptyline (Vivactil).
Tricyclic antidepressants are believed to cause memory problems because they block the action of norepinephrine and serotonin, which are two of the key chemical messengers in the brain responsible for modulating cognition and memory.
These medications (also called opioid analgesics) are used to provide pain relief from moderate to severe pain. Examples include oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone), hydrocodone with acetaminophen (Norco, Vicodin), morphine (MS-Contin, Kadian), hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo), and fentanyl (Duragesic).
Narcotic pain medications work by stopping pain signals in the central nervous system from being sent to pain receptors throughout the body, thus, blocking the feeling of pain. The key chemical messengers that mediate these effects of narcotic painkillers are also involved in memory and cognition. Therefore, narcotic painkillers can lead to long-term and short-term memory problems. The risk is especially high when narcotic painkillers are taken for a long time.
Dopamine agonists are used to treat Parkinson's disease, certain types of brain tumors, and restless legs syndrome (RLS). Examples include pramipexole (Mirapex), ropinirole (Requip), and apomorphine (Apokyn).
Parkinson’s drugs activate dopamine signaling pathways and are medications that may cause memory loss. Dopamine is a chemical messenger needed for brain functions such as learning, memory, pleasure, motivation, and fine motor control. Side effects of Parkinson's drugs can include drowsiness, confusion, memory loss, delusions, hallucinations, and compulsive behaviors such as gambling or overeating.
Beta-blockers are a group of medications that are prescribed to treat high blood pressure, chest pain (angina), abnormal heart rhythms, congestive heart failure, migraines, and tremors. They also come in eye drop form to treat some types of glaucoma. Examples of beta-blockers include atenolol (Tenormin), metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol), propranolol (Inderal), carvedilol (Coreg), sotalol (Betapace), and timolol (Timoptic).
It is believed that beta-blockers may cause memory problems by blocking the action of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are key chemical messengers in the central nervous system.
Antihistamines are commonly prescribed medications that are also available over the counter. They are used to relieve or prevent allergy symptoms, motion sickness, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness. Examples include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), brompheniramine (Dimetane), clemastine (Tavist), hydroxyzine (Vistaril), and carbinoxamine (Colistin).
Antihistamine drugs block the action of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that is involved in numerous functions in the body, including functions in the memory and learning centers of the brain. First-generation (older) allergy medications may cause memory loss. However, newer antihistamines, cetirizine (Zyrtec) and loratadine (Claritin) are less likely to cause problems with memory and cognition.
Frequently Asked Questions
What medications can cause dementia symptoms?
Anticholinergic drugs are associated with one of the highest risks of causing severe dementia. Antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, anti-seizure drugs, and anti-Parkinson’s drugs may also have negative effects on memory and cognition in the long run. Please talk to your doctor if you have concerns or questions about the side effects of these medications.
What drugs are linked to Alzheimer's?
Studies have found that people who take certain antidepressants, antipsychotic drugs, antiparkinson drugs, antimuscarinics (anticholinergic drugs), and antiepileptic drugs may have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
What medications can cause cognitive problems?
Antidepressants, anticonvulsants, psychoactive drugs, and antihistamines can cause confusion, delirium, dementia, and acute or chronic cognitive impairment.
The information contained in this article about medications that may cause memory loss does not constitute medical advice and should not be followed without a consultation with a health care professional. All the drugs mentioned above are FDA-approved to treat specific conditions. If you are worried that one of your prescription or over-the-counter medications may be the trigger for memory problems, talk to your health professional about alternative treatment options. Do not stop taking a medication without speaking to your doctor first.