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When Good Meds Do Bad Things

When Good Meds Do Bad Things

Running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis played in the NFL for 13 seasons (a Super Bowl win with the Steelers) and landed in the Hall of Fame—all done while contending with asthma. When he had an attack in a 1997 game played in Jacksonville (“Imagine someone putting a plastic bag over your head,” he said of the incident), they gave him a shot and puffs on a rescue inhaler and put him back in the game!

Like Bettis, over 24,000,000 North Americans who deal with asthma depend on the right medication to control symptoms and get them back in their game.

These days the right med may include the long-acting anticholinergic drug, tiotropium (also prescribed for COPD). But, as it turns out, while it may get you back in the game, it’s blocking a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine and that can bench your cognitive powers.

It’s not the only commonly prescribed medication that’s anticholinergic—in fact dozens of nighttime sleep aids, older antihistamines, some antidepressants, cardio meds, drugs for urinary incontinence and more work to block acetylcholine. And say researchers in an issue of JAMA Neurology, “the [long term] use of AC [anticholinergic] medication was associated with increased brain atrophy and dysfunction and clinical decline. Thus, [long term] use of AC medication among older adults should likely be discouraged if alternative therapies are available.”

So if you’re 60 or older, ask your doctor (and Google) if your meds are anticholinergic and whether there are alternatives that will protect your health equally well.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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