For a long time, doctors dismissed forgetfulness, brain fog and mental confusion as normal parts of aging. But scientists now know that memory loss as you get older is by no means inevitable. In fact, routine memory, skills and knowledge may even improve with age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most people are familiar with at least some of the things that can impair memory, including alcohol and drug abuse, heavy cigarette smoking, head injuries, stroke, sleep deprivation, severe stress, vitamin B12 deficiency, and illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
But what many people don’t realize is that a number of commonly prescribed drugs also can interfere with memory. Here are seven of the top types of memory-robbing medications.
1. Antianxiety drugs (benzodiazepines)
Why they are prescribed: Benzodiazepines are used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders, agitation, seizures, and delirium and muscle spasms. Because benzodiazepines have a sedative effect, they are sometimes used to treat insomnia and the anxiety that can accompany depression.
Examples: Alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), flurazepam, lorazepam (Ativan), midazolam, quazepam (Doral), temazepam (Restoril) and triazolam (Halcion).
Drugs That May Cause Memory Loss
1. Antianxiety drugs
2. Antiseizure drugs
3. Tricyclic antidepressants (older class)
4. Narcotic painkillers
5. Sleeping aids
6. Incontinence drugs
7. Antihistamines (first generation)
How they can affect memory: Benzodiazepines dampen activity in key parts of the brain, including those involved in the transfer of events from short-term to long-term memory. In fact, they’re used in anesthesia for this very reason.
Alternatives: Benzodiazepines should be prescribed only rarely in older adults, and then only for short periods of time. It takes older people much longer than younger people to flush these drugs out of their bodies, and the ensuing buildup puts older adults at higher risk for not just memory loss but delirium, falls, fractures and motor vehicle accidents. Another drawback: They’re addicting, says D.P. Devanand, M.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University Medical Center.
If you take one of these meds for insomnia, mild anxiety or agitation, talk with your doctor or other health care professional about treating your condition with other types of drugs or nondrug treatments. If you have insomnia, for instance, the first line of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). And an antidepressant might be able to treat your anxiety, Devanand notes.
Be sure to consult your health care professional before stopping or reducing the dosage of any benzodiazepine. Sudden withdrawal can trigger serious side effects, so a health professional should always monitor the process.
What About Statins?
Statins appeared in an earlier version of this article, published in 2016, but more recent research is giving these cholesterol-lowering drugs the boot from the list.
“Very large studies performed in hundreds of thousands of individuals monitored very carefully do not show any increase in memory problems or anything else related to brain function,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, M.D., chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern Medicine and immediate past president of the American Heart Association (AHA). A 2018 scientific statement from the AHA says there is “no convincing evidence for a causal relationship” between statins and cognitive dysfunction.
In fact, Lloyd-Jones says the data suggests that statins may be protective against cognitive decline, since they are effective at preventing strokes.
If you have concerns about potential side effects from statins — or any drug — talk to your doctor. “Any medication can cause any number of different types of side effects. And those vary from individual to individual,” Lloyd-Jones says.
2. Antiseizure drugs
Why they are prescribed: Long used to treat seizures, these medications can also be prescribed for nerve pain, bipolar disorder, mood disorders and mania.
Examples: Acetazolamide (Diamox), carbamazepine (Tegretol), gabapentin (Neurontin), lamotrigine (Lamictal), levetiracetam (Keppra), oxcarbazepine (Trileptal), pregabalin (Lyrica), rufinamide (Banzel), topiramate (Topamax), valproic acid (Depakote) and zonisamide (Zonegran).
How they can affect memory: Anticonvulsants are believed to limit seizures by dampening the flow of signals within the central nervous system (CNS). Drugs that depress signaling in the CNS can cause memory loss. One thing to note: These medications can be sedating, “and sometimes it’s hard to separate what is a true cognitive decline from simple sedation,” Devanand says.
Alternatives: Many patients with seizures do well on phenytoin (Dilantin), which, at lower doses, has less of an impact on memory. Patients with chronic nerve pain find that venlafaxine (Effexor) — which also spares memory — alleviates their pain. Another option: Ask your doctor if adjusting your dosage is a possibility. Symptoms of cognitive decline are less likely to occur with low doses of antiseizure medicines, Devanand says.
3. Tricyclic antidepressants
Why they are prescribed: This older class of antidepressant drugs is prescribed less often these days, but some people still use tricyclics for depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and nerve-related pain.
Examples: Amitriptyline, clomipramine (Anafranil), desipramine (Norpramin), doxepin (Silenor), imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), protriptyline (Vivactil) and trimipramine (Surmontil).