Common Meds Can Cause Cognition Problems in Seniors

By Judith Graham, Kaiser Health News

By all accounts the woman, in her late 60s, appeared to have severe dementia. She was largely incoherent. Her short-term memory was terrible. She couldn’t focus on questions that medical professionals asked her.

But Dr. Malaz Boustani, a professor of aging research at Indiana University School of Medicine, suspected something else might be going on. The patient was taking Benadryl for seasonal allergies, another antihistamine for itching, Seroquel (an antipsychotic medication) for mood fluctuations, as well as medications for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal upset.

To various degrees, each of these drugs blocks an important chemical messenger in the brain, acetylcholine. Boustani thought the cumulative impact might be causing the woman’s cognitive difficulties.

He was right. Over six months, Boustani and a pharmacist took the patient off those medications and substituted alternative treatments. Miraculously, she appeared to recover completely. Her initial score on the Mini-Mental State Exam had been 11 of 30 — signifying severe dementia — and it shot up to 28, in the normal range.

An estimated 1 in 4 older adults take anticholinergic drugs — a wide-ranging class of medications used to treat allergies, insomnia, leaky bladders, diarrhea, dizziness, motion sickness, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and various psychiatric disorders.

Older adults are highly susceptible to negative responses to these medications. Since 2012, anticholinergics have been featured prominently on the American Geriatrics Society Beers Criteria list of medications that are potentially inappropriate for seniors.

“The drugs that I’m most worried about in my clinic, when I need to think about what might be contributing to older patients’ memory loss or cognitive changes, are the anticholinergics,” said Dr. Rosemary Laird, a geriatrician and medical director of the Maturing Minds Clinic at AdventHealth in Winter Park, Fla.

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Here’s what older adults should know about these drugs:

The Basics

Anticholinergic medications target acetylcholine, an important chemical messenger in the parasympathetic nervous system that dilates blood vessels and regulates muscle contractions, bodily secretions and heart rate, among other functions. In the brain, acetylcholine plays a key role in attention, concentration, and memory formation and consolidation.

Some medications have strong anticholinergic properties, others less so. Among prescription medicines with strong effects are antidepressants such as imipramine (brand name Trofanil), antihistamines such as hydroxyzine (Vistaril and Atarax), antipsychotics such as clozapine (Clozaril and FazaClo), antispasmodics such as dicyclomine (Bentyl) and drugs for urinary incontinence such as tolterodine (Detrol).

In addition to prescription medications, many common over-the-counter drugs have anticholinergic properties, including antihistamines such as Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton and sleep aids such as Tylenol PM, Aleve PM and Nytol.

Common side effects include dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, disorientation, agitation, blurry vision, dry mouth, constipation, difficulty urinating and delirium, a sudden and acute change in consciousness.

Unfortunately, “physicians often attribute anticholinergic symptoms in elderly people to aging or age-related illness rather than the effects of drugs,” according to a research review by physicians at the Medical University of South Carolina and in Britain.

Seniors are more susceptible to adverse effects from these medications for several reasons: Their brains process acetylcholine less efficiently. The medications are more likely to cross the blood-brain barrier. And their bodies take longer to break down these drugs.

Long-Term Effects

In the late 1970s, researchers discovered that deficits in an enzyme that synthesizes acetylcholine were present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. “That put geriatricians and neurologists on alert, and the word went out: Don’t put older adults, especially those with cognitive dysfunction, on drugs with acetylcholine-blocking effects,” said Dr. Steven DeKosky, deputy director of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida.

Still, experts thought that the effects of anticholinergics were short-term and that if older patients stopped taking them, “that’s it — everything goes back to normal,” Boustani said.

Concerns mounted in the mid-2000s when researchers picked up signals that anticholinergic drugs could have a long-term effect, possibly leading to the death of brain neurons and the accumulation of plaques and tangles associated with neurodegeneration.

Since then several studies have noted an association between anticholinergics and a heightened risk of dementia. In late June, this risk was highlighted in a new report in JAMA Internal Medicine that examined more than 284,000 adults age 55 and older in Britain between 2004 and 2016.

The study found that more than half of these subjects had been prescribed at least one of 56 anticholinergic drugs. (Multiple prescriptions of these drugs were common as well.) People who took a daily dose of a strong anticholinergic for three years had a 49% increased risk of dementia. Effects were most pronounced for people who took anticholinergic antidepressants, antipsychotics, antiepileptic drugs and bladder control medications.

These findings don’t constitute proof that anticholinergic drugs cause dementia; they show only an association. But based on this study and earlier research, Boustani said, it now appears older adults who take strong anticholinergic medications for one to three years are vulnerable to long-term side effects.

Preventing Harm

Attention is now turning to how best to wean older adults off anticholinergics, and whether doing so might improve cognition or prevent dementia.

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Researchers at Indiana University’s School of Medicine hope to answer these questions in two new studies, starting this fall, supported by $6.8 million in funding from the National Institute on Aging.

One will enroll 344 older adults who are taking anticholinergics and whose cognition is mildly impaired. A pharmacist will work with these patients and their physicians to take them off the medications, and patients’ cognition will be assessed every six months for two years.

The goal is to see whether patients’ brains “get better,” said Noll Campbell, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Regenstrief Institute and an assistant professor at Purdue University’s College of Pharmacy. If so, that would constitute evidence that anticholinergic drugs cause cognitive decline.

The second trial, involving 700 older adults, will examine whether an app that educates seniors about potential harms associated with anticholinergic medications and assigns a personalized risk score for dementia induces people to initiate conversations with physicians about getting off these drugs.

Moving patients off anticholinergic drugs requires “slow tapering down of medications” over three to six months, at a minimum, according to Nagham Ailabouni, a geriatric pharmacist at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy. In most cases, good treatment alternatives are available.

Advice for Older Adults

Seniors concerned about taking anticholinergic drugs “need to approach their primary care physician and talk about the risks versus the benefits of taking these medications,” said Shellina Scheiner, an assistant professor and clinical geriatric pharmacist at the University of Minnesota.

Don’t try stopping cold turkey or on your own. “People can become dependent on these drugs and experience withdrawal side effects such as agitation, dizziness, confusion and jitteriness,” Ailabouni said. “This can be managed, but you need to work with a medical provider.”

Also, “don’t make the assumption that if [a] drug is available over the counter that it’s automatically safe for your brain,” Boustani said. In general, he advises older adults to ask physicians about how all the medications they’re taking could affect their brain.

Finally, doctors should “not give anticholinergic medications to people with any type of dementia,” DeKosky said. “This will not only interfere with their memory but is likely to make them confused and interfere with their functioning.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Social Media Lowers Depression Risk for Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Seniors citizens who have chronic pain are significantly less likely to suffer from depression if they participate in an online social network, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed the results of a 2011 survey of more than 3,400 Medicare patients aged 65 and older, in which respondents were asked about their depression, pain and social participation. About 17% of the seniors used an online social network in the previous month.

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Researchers found that seniors who had chronic pain were often depressed, socially isolated and less likely to participate in activities that require face-to-face interaction.

However, online social participation appeared to buffer the impact of pain on depression. Seniors in pain who did not use an online social network were twice as likely to become depressed.

“The results suggest that for those in pain, it may be possible that online social participation can compensate for reduced offline social participation, especially where it pertains to the maintenance of mental health and well-being. This is critical because the onset of pain can often lead to a ‘downward spiral’ of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults,” wrote lead author Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate at the U-M Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research.

“Online social participation serves as a way to possibly arrest the development of pain toward depression through this pathway, by ensuring that older adults remain socially connected despite the presence of pain.”

Social media may also preserve cognitive function and psychological well-being in the elderly, researchers said. The findings are significant in an aging society where social isolation and loneliness are key determinants of well-being.

"Our results may be possibly extended to other forms of conditions (e.g., chronic illnesses, functional limitations) that, like pain, also restrict physical activity outside of the home," Ang said.

The survey data did not identify what types of social media – such as Facebook or Twitter – were more effective in warding off depression and social isolation.

The study was published in the Journals of Gerontology.

Medical Cannabis to Be Studied in Nursing Homes

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Plans have been announced in Canada for a research study on the effectiveness of medical cannabis in treating pain and improving cognitive function in seniors. The 6-month pilot program will be one of the largest of its kind, enrolling up to 500 nursing home residents.

The Ontario Long Term Care Association (OLTCA) is partnering with Canopy Growth Corporation, which makes a variety of cannabis products through its Spectrum Cannabis brand. The pilot study will focus on evaluating the impact of medical cannabis on residents’ health and quality of life, as well as caregiver stress and the economic benefits of cannabis use in nursing homes.

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"Medical cannabis is currently prescribed for residents as appropriate, but it's still an emerging area," says Candace Chartier, CEO of OLTCA, which represents over half of Ontario's 630 long-term care homes.

"Through this partnership and pilot study, we hope to provide more clarity to long-term care clinicians and frontline staff about the use of medical cannabis for residents."

Can cannabis improve cognitive function? The popular image of clueless stoners breezing through life like Jeff Bridges as the Dude in “The Big Lebowski” may not be entirely accurate.

A small 2016 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University found that cognitive function improved in 24 adults who smoked marijuana for three months. Participants also reported better sleep, less depression and a significant decrease in their use of medications such as opioids — all qualities that would be welcomed in nursing homes.

"There is clearly an interest in the long-term care space to explore medical cannabis as an alternative to traditional medications for pain and degenerative cognitive function," said Mark Zekulin, President & Co-CEO of Canopy Growth. "The pilot study we've announced… is the first step in developing an evidence-based, best practice approach to medical cannabis that will result in consistent care for thousands of seniors and ultimately improve quality of life and outcomes in long-term care homes."

A recent survey in Israel of over 2,700 elderly patients found that medical cannabis significantly reduced their chronic pain.  About a third of the patients used CBD oil, about 24 percent smoked marijuana, and about six percent used a vaporizer.

Over half of the seniors who originally reported "bad" or "very bad" quality of life said their lives improved to "good" or "very good."

"We found medical cannabis treatment significantly relieves pain and improves quality of life for seniors with minimal side effects reported," said Victor Novack, MD, a professor of medicine at Ben-Gurion University and head of the Soroka Cannabis Clinical Research Institute.

A recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that most older Americans think marijuana is effective for pain relief, anxiety and nausea.

Aspirin Risky for Seniors 75 and Older

By Pat Anson, Editor

The old cliché about a doctor telling you to “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” isn’t such great advice after all. Especially for seniors aged 75 and older.

A daily dose of aspirin has long been recommended as a way to prevent a heart attack or stroke. But British researchers at the University of Oxford say the blood thinning effects of aspirin substantially raise the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding as patients grow older.

Their study, published in The Lancet medical journal, estimates that aspirin causes over 3,000 deaths in the U.K. annually.

“We have known for some time that aspirin increases the risk of bleeding for elderly patients. But our new study gives us a much clearer understanding of the size of the increased risk and of the severity and consequences of bleeds,” said lead author Professor Peter Rothwell.

“Previous studies have shown there is a clear benefit of short term anti-platelet treatment following a heart attack or stroke. But our findings raise questions about the balance of risk and benefit of long-term daily aspirin use in people aged 75 or over.”

Rothwell and his colleagues followed over 3,100 patients for 10 years who were prescribed a daily aspirin after a heart attack or stroke. For the patients under 65, the annual rate of bleeding severe enough to require hospitalization was about 1.5 percent. For patients aged 75-84, the annual rate rose to 3.5 percent and for patients over 85 it was 5 percent.

The researchers are not recommending that seniors stop taking aspirin. But they suggest that a proton-pump inhibitor – heartburn drugs – be prescribed along with aspirin to reduce the risk of bleeding.  They estimate that proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) could reduce upper gastrointestinal bleeding by as much as 90% in patients receiving long-term aspirin treatment.

“While there is some evidence that PPIs might have some small long-term risks, this study shows that the risk of bleeding without them at older ages is high, and the consequences significant,” said Rothwell.

About half of adults aged 75 or older in the U.S. and Europe take aspirin or another anti-platelet drug daily .

Low Impact Exercise Reduces Pain in Seniors

By Pat Anson, Editor

Even a modest amount of exercise is effective at easing pain from arthritis, and other muscle and joint conditions in older adults, according to the latest study by the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City.

Since 2011, HHS has offered free, low-impact exercise programs at senior centers in Chinatown, Flushing, and Queens – and tracked the health of those who participated. Researchers presented their latest findings at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Denver.

"Joints will often stiffen if not used, and muscles will weaken if not exercised. Our bodies are meant to move, and inactivity leads to weakness and stiffness, and joints with arthritis often worsen with inactivity," said Theodore Fields, MD, director of the Rheumatology Faculty Practice Plan at HSS.

The exercise program takes place once a week for eight weeks. Participants perform chair and floor mat exercises using stretch bands and other gentle exercises led by certified bilingual instructors.

The program was originally developed for Asian seniors 65 and older, many of whom live in poverty and suffer from arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions.

A survey was distributed to participants before classes began and after they ended to evaluate pain, physical function, stiffness, fatigue, balance and other health indicators. A total of 256 adults completed the questionnaires, the vast majority of them elderly women.

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"Overall, the program was very well-received," said Minlun (Demi) Wu, an HHS research coordinator. "After completing the classes, statistically significant differences were found in pain intensity, physical function, balance, and confidence about exercising without making symptoms worse."

Eight out of ten participants said they had less pain after participating in the program. Over 90 percent said they had less stiffness, fatigue and their balance improved. There was also significant improvement in their ability to perform daily activities, such as lifting or carrying groceries; climbing stairs; bending, kneeling and stooping; and bathing and getting dressed.

"The study results are consistent with the experience of rheumatologists and with prior studies showing that exercise, even of mild degree, helps with pain," said Dr. Fields. "Getting people up and moving does appear to help with mood, pain and overall functioning."

"Our findings indicate that implementing a bilingual low-impact exercise program can play an important role in pain relief, improved quality of life and improved levels of physical activity in the underserved Chinese community," said Wu, adding that the classes have become so popular there is a waiting list.

According to the CDC, Asian seniors have some of the highest rates of physical inactivity. Chinese Americans are also less likely to seek health care because of cost and language and cultural barriers.