As we age, it’s common to experience changes in our health and well-being. In fact, as much as 66 percent of all adults in the United States (about 131 million people) use prescription drugs to manage cardiovascular issues, high blood sugar, and other chronic conditions. Although these medications are helpful, some can cause side effects that impact our cognitive function, leading to “medication fog” or dementia-like symptoms.
What Is Medication Fog? Signs and Symptoms
Feeling like a cloud is blocking your ability to think or remember clearly is the simplest definition for medication fog, which is commonly known as brain fog among people who do not take any medications.
How medication fog feels varies from one person to another. In general, mental cloudiness and confusion aside, other symptoms include difficulty focusing, forgetfulness, or an overwhelming feeling of being “out of it.” Those who experience medication fog may also struggle with tasks requiring quick thinking or problem-solving, or feel slower than usual when performing everyday tasks. Some people may also encounter changes in mood or behavior, such as feeling more anxious, irritable, or withdrawn.
This foggy feeling can be particularly concerning for older adults in their 60s and beyond, who may already be experiencing age-related cognitive decline or dementia. Some medications known to worsen mild cognitive impairment by causing medication fog include:
Antihistamines are one of the most prevalent causes of medication fog. Since these anti-allergy drugs work by blocking histamine receptors in your brain, it can lead to drowsiness and impaired cognitive function.
If you take antihistamines and have been experiencing medication fog, talk to your doctor about alternatives. Other medications or non-pharmacological solutions may help manage your allergy symptoms without causing brain fog.
The Cognitive Impact of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia. However, benzos can also contribute to medication fog. These drugs enhance the action of the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain called GABA to stimulate a calming effect on the brain. Excessive GABA activity can lead to drowsiness, confusion, and impaired cognitive function.
If taking benzos for your anxiety or sleep disorder is causing medication fog, consult your doctor about reducing your dosage or changing your prescription. Similar to antihistamines, many other alternatives or non-pharmacological remedies may also help manage anxiety disorders and insomnia without triggering medication fog.
Antidepressants and Antipsychotics: Effect on Cognitive Function
Antidepressants and antipsychotics are powerful medications for managing clinical depression and other mental health conditions. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the ailments these drugs are trying to address, they can also cause medication fog. Antidepressants work by increasing the levels of specific neurotransmitters in the brain, which can lead to cognitive impairment. On the other hand, antipsychotics function by blocking the action of dopamine, which can also lead to cognitive impairment.
If you take antidepressants or antipsychotics and have been struggling with medication fog, talk to your physician about adjusting or switching out your prescriptions.
Medication or brain fog is a concerning side effect of certain drugs, especially for older adults or seniors with existing age-related cognitive issues. Being open about your symptoms with your healthcare provider, undergoing routine cognitive assessments, and making healthy lifestyle choices such as avoiding alcohol and practicing good sleep hygiene may help reduce your risk of medication fog and improve your cognitive function.
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