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Guide Health: Memory and drugs

Everyone is concerned about memory loss in old age, but before you resign yourself to dementia, check your medications. Some drugs may actually cause adverse effects that can be mistaken for memory loss.

For instance, benzodiazepines used to treat stress, anxiety, and sleep problems may remain in the body causing daytime drowsiness and confusion, which in turn may be identified as symptoms of dementia. Drugs used to treat seizures, depression, and pain can also result in sedation and confusion.

So before you assume that you have dementia, check the medications that you are taking. An adjustment in dosing or even a change in drug may be able to resolve the symptoms.

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Smoking can deprive nervous system cells of oxygen, resulting in impaired memory and a nervous system that doesn’t function well. Alcohol and drug abuse damages nerve cells as well, and once the damage has occurred, your body cannot repair it. Obviously, you want to quit smoking and not drink heavily or abuse drugs!

Dementia is more than just forgetting. As an example, you may forget where you left your house keys, but with dementia you may not know what door your keys open or perhaps even how to use them. About one in 11 Canadians over age 65 are affected by dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for 60 to 80 per cent of the cases. With the aging of the Canadian population, these numbers are sure to increase over the next 10 to 20 years.

There is no cure for dementia, but some drugs are able to slow its progression. In a healthy nervous system, nerve cells or neurons communicate with each other using neurochemicals. The neurons look like trees with “branches” spreading out to touch the next neuron. The area where the branches of two cells meet is called the synapse, and it is here that neurochemicals carry the impulses (i.e. thoughts, feelings, and memories) across the gap.

In dementia, it is believed that a combination of effects account for memory loss. Levels of a neurochemical known as acetylcholine may drop too low. As well, tangles or strands of protein may separate from the nerve cell branches, so the cells lose their connections with each other and die. As well, plaques or an accumulation of dying or dead cell debris may block the synapses.

Drugs that are prescribed to treat memory loss are aimed at correcting the damage to nerve cells. Cholinesterase inhibitors, such as donepzil, stop enzymes from destroying acetylcholine, thus leaving more of it in the nervous system. NMDA blockers such as memantine work to stop NMDA receptors from becoming overstimulated, which seems to cause nerve cell death.

Remember, these drugs are not a cure. Rather, they are used to allow someone with dementia more time to organize their lives or do the things that they have been putting off. Other drugs such as Chinese club moss, vitamin E, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, ginkgo, and even estrogen have been touted as possible treatments for memory loss. Unfortunately, none have been proved effective.

Research has shown that if you exercise your mind, you actually reduce your risk for memory loss, but you don’t necessarily need to purchase a program. Instead, you can challenge your mind without spending any money.

Start with small changes, perhaps using your other hand to hold your toothbrush when you brush your teeth. Mind games including crosswords, sudokus, and word puzzles are great ideas, as is reading books, writing letters, keeping a journal or diary, or even visiting with friends, relatives, and co-workers.

Keeping busy and trying new activities will also help, so visit a museum, go to a concert, attend a play, take up a new hobby or enrol in a continuing education course. Challenge yourself with learning a new word each day, learn a new language, take music lessons, try ballroom dancing, or even do math problems.

You know that overall good health (i.e. eating a healthy diet, maintaining an ideal weight, and keeping physically active) will help you avoid disease. However, you also want to maintain a healthy and active mind. The adage “use it or lose it” rings true when it comes to your memory!

About the author


Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.



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