Meds and memory

Where are they? Vital process, complicated detail.
Some drugs that heal the body can mess with the brain
By Carol Ann Rinzler

Quick: Where are your keys?

Not sure? No surprise.

Remembering that small but vital detail is a complicated process that involves both the part of your brain that enables you to think and the parts associated with emotion.

It’s a process that seems to slow with age. The old news was that after a certain age, perhaps around 30, your brain began to shrink until over the years it shriveled into nothing. taking your memory along with it.

The new news is that scientists who have actually taken the time to sit down and count brain cells find practically no age-related loss of cells responsible for thinking and remembering. There may, however, be less activity in your synapses, the pathways between brain cells that allow you to access what you’re stored in your brain, so it can take a little longer to find those keys, especially if you take your medicine as directed, because the newest news is that some meds that heal the body can mess with the brain.

This can happen at any age, but it’s more common among older folk who may be taking multiple prescriptions to treat multiple problems. In fact, it’s so common that AARP, the champion of all aging, has compiled a list of the drugs most likely to do the dirty.

First up are anti-anxiety meds such as Xanax and Valium and sleep aids such Ambien which can slow your brain’s ability to transfer what you see and learn from short term memory (something you just saw) to long term memory (something you saw a few years ago). Statins such as Lipitor and Zocor reduce the amount of artery-clogging cholesterol in your blood, but they also reduce the levels of cholesterol in your brain. That matters because your brain, which contains 25 percent of all the cholesterol in your body, uses the fatty substance when forming links between nerve cells that create memory.

Happily, there are substitutes for some medical memory busters. For example, “first generation” antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil) may block the action of chemical messengers in your memory and learning centers. Newer ones such as loratadine (Claritin) cetirizine (Zyrtec) and SSRI antidepressants such as paroxetine (Paxil) don’t seem to.

You don’t need a memory doctor to tell you that lifestyle choices such as alcohol and drug abuse or problems such as insomnia can also impact memory. On the other hand, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it can keep your brain and your memory zipping along at relative speed even into old age. As Richard C. Mohs, the chief science officer for the Global Alzheimer’s Platform (GAP) Foundation, writes, “Evidence from animal studies suggests that stimulating the brain can stop cells from shrinking and even increase brain size in some cases.” Which means that learning a new language or visiting a museum is not only fun, in the long run it may also help you find those darned keys which the last time you saw them were ... where?

Memory-Busting Meds: AARP’s list

1. Antianxiety drugs such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium)

2. Cholesterol lowering drugs (statins) such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simivastatin (Zocor)

3. Antiseizure drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin)

4. Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil)

5. Narcotic painkillers such as fentanyl (Duragesic) and hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin)

6. Parkinson’s drugs such as apomorphine (Apokyn)

7. Hypertension drugs such as metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol) and propranolol (Inderal)

8. Sleep aids such as zolpidem (Ambien)

9. Incontinence drugs such as oxybutynin (Ditropan XL, Gelnique, Oxytrol)

10. First-generation antihistamines such as chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl)

CAUTION: Do not stop or reduce the dosage of any of these meds without first checking with your doctor, the person best qualified to evaluate your memory.