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Common Medications Linked to Memory Loss and Dementia-Like Symptoms: What Family Caregivers Need to Know

Written by OurParents Staff
 about the author
3 minute readLast updated May 12, 2023
Reviewed by Amanda LundbergAmanda Lundberg is a nurse with over 10 years of experience in clinical settings. She is an expert in family medicine as well as various specialties. Her holistic approach to health focuses on wellness and preventative care. She now writes content for health and wellness brands under her company name, Locksley Content.

It’s a feeling many family caregivers know all too well: the heart-wrenching worry that accompanies watching our loved ones age and face new health challenges. When we start to notice changes in their cognitive abilities, fear and uncertainty take root. You might wonder, could there be a connection between the medications they’re taking and the onset of dementia-like symptoms? If you have been researching medications that cause sundowning, which is another term for dementia-like symptoms, you’re not alone. This article will provide valuable information on the classes of drugs associated with dementia-like symptoms and long-term memory loss, common examples, and potential alternatives.

Key Takeaways

  1. Certain classes of drugs have been linked to dementia-like symptoms and memory loss. These include anticholinergics, benzodiazepines, Z-drugs, and H2 blockers. Certain classes of drugs have been linked to dementia-like symptoms and memory loss. These include anticholinergics, benzodiazepines, Z-drugs, and H2 blockers.
  2. These medications may affect cognition by blocking essential neurotransmitters. This can interfere with memory formation or reduce nutrient absorption. This can interfere with memory formation or reduce nutrient absorption.
  3. Consult health care professionals to explore alternatives with fewer cognitive side effects. This can include SSRIs for depression or non-benzodiazepine anxiolytics for anxiety.
  4. If your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline or has received a dementia diagnosis, there are care options available. These options include in-home care and memory care. These options include in-home care and memory care.

Classes of drugs linked to dementia and memory loss

Several classes of drugs have been linked to dementia-like side effects and long-term memory loss. The classes, common brand names, and generics of several drugs are listed below.
  • Anticholinergics: This class of drugs works by blocking the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential for learning and memory.
    Examples of anticholinergic drugs include:

    • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for allergies
    • Oxybutynin (Ditropan) for overactive bladder
    • Amitriptyline (Elavil) for depression
  • Benzodiazepines: These medications are often prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders.
    Examples of this class of drug include:

    • Diazepam (Valium)
    • Alprazolam (Xanax)
    • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Z-drugs: These medications are most often prescribed for insomnia.
    Examples of Z-drugs are:

    • Zolpidem (Ambien)
    • Zaleplon (Sonata)
    • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • H2 blockers: These drugs are used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and ulcers.
    Some examples of H2 blockers include:

    • Ranitidine (Zantac)
    • Famotidine (Pepcid)
    • Cimetidine (Tagamet)

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How can these drugs cause memory loss?

The mechanisms through which these medications may contribute to memory loss and dementia-like symptoms can vary. For instance, anticholinergic drugs can impair cognitive function by blocking acetylcholine.[01] This neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that plays a crucial role in transmitting signals between nerve cells (neurons) in the nervous system. In the central nervous system, acetylcholine is involved in various cognitive functions, such as learning, memory, and attention. It plays a significant role in modulating the activity of neurons and overall brain function.
Benzodiazepines and Z-drugs can interfere with the formation of new memories and may lead to dependence, which can exacerbate cognitive decline and contribute to the risk of developing dementia. H2 blockers may have an indirect impact on cognition by reducing the absorption of essential nutrients for seniors like vitamin B12.[02]
Read more:A Doctor’s Guide to Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Seniors

Long-term effects and recovery of cognitive symptoms

Some studies suggest that the long-term use of medications that cause sundowning can increase the risk of developing dementia. A 2019 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine investigated the long-term cognitive effects of using anticholinergic medications, which have been associated with an increased risk of sundowning in older adults. The researchers found that individuals who used these medications for at least three years had a higher risk of developing dementia.[01]
However, it is important to acknowledge that not every person taking these medications will experience cognitive decline. In some cases, stopping the medication could lead to an improvement in cognitive symptoms. It’s imperative to consult with a health care professional before making medication changes as abrupt discontinuation of any medication may cause severe health issues.

Alternatives to consider

It’s important to consult with a health care professional before making any changes to your loved one’s medication regimen. Your loved one’s doctor can help you explore alternatives that may have fewer cognitive side effects.
For example:
  • Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be considered instead of anticholinergic medications for depression.
  • Non-benzodiazepine anxiolytics like buspirone (Buspar) may be a safer option for anxiety.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can be an effective non-pharmacological approach to treating sleep problems.

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What should you do with this information?

If your loved one is experiencing cognitive decline or dementia-like symptoms and is taking one or more of the medications listed above, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with their doctor or pharmacist. They can help assess the potential risks and benefits of their current medications, discuss alternative treatments, and monitor any changes in cognition.

Next steps and support

As adult children, remaining proactive and informed about the medications our aging parents take is crucial. Educating ourselves on the possible link between certain drugs and dementia-like symptoms allows us to better support our loved ones as they navigate the challenges of aging.
If your family member is experiencing cognitive decline or has received a dementia diagnosis, nonmedical in-home care or memory care may be appropriate options to explore. These services can provide personalized support to help manage their daily activities and enhance their quality of life. Our Senior Care Advisors can guide you through this process, assisting you in finding the most suitable care options for your loved one’s unique needs.


  1. Coupland, C., Hill, T., Dening, T., Morriss, R., Moore, M., & Hippisley-Cox, J. (2019). Anticholinergic drug exposure and the risk of dementia: A nested case-control study.JAMA Internal Medicine.

  2. Morley, K. I., Ferris, J., & Bates, G. (2018). Long-term benzodiazepine and Z-drugs use in England: a survey of general practice.British Journal of General Practice.

Meet the Author
OurParents Staff
Edited byKristin Carroll
Reviewed byAmanda Lundberg

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