Can Taking Too Many Medications Lead to Dementia?

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Senior man taking pills
Sorapop Udomsri /

One of the wonders of modern life is how taking a handful of medications every day can improve and extend your life.

But there might be a major downside to that regimen of daily pills. A new study published in the medical journal Aging and Disease suggests that those who take more than three medications over a five-year period might be at higher risk of developing dementia.

The practice of taking multiple prescribed medications at the same time is known as polypharmacy.

As part of the study, a team of international researchers looked at the records of more than 33,000 dementia patients in Wales between 1990 to 2015. Experts used machine learning techniques to find patterns of medication usage that might contribute to a dementia diagnosis.

The researchers discovered that in the two decades prior to a dementia diagnosis, the percentage of patients who took three or more drugs surged from 5.5% in earlier years to 82.16% in the period of less than five years before a diagnosis.

According to a summary of the researchers’ findings:

“And of those closest to their diagnosis, almost two-thirds (66.55%) were found to be taking multiple medicines for a combination of respiratory or urinary infections, arthropathies and rheumatism, and cardio-vascular disease. A further 22% of patients were found to be taking medicines for infections, arthropathies and rheumatism, cardio-metabolic disease and depression.”

The researchers say they hope their findings will motivate physicians to carefully prescribe medications in combinations that minimize the risk of cognitive impairment.

Commenting in Medical News Today, Dr. David A. Merrill — a psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California, who was not involved with the study — says:

“It’s important to take the effects of medication on the whole body into account, even when treating a localized infection like bronchitis or aches and pains from arthritis. The medication choices made over the years with a patient can significantly impact the course of heart and kidney disease and brain health.”

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