Memory and medications

Certain medications can slow down the thinking process and harm our memory. Taking medications may make our brain foggy, impeding our ability to concentrate on a task and making it more difficult to remember things.

Memory loss and medication side-effects are one of the top 3 health concerns of older men and women in Canada (Tannenbaum 2005, 2012). Approximately 17% of adults aged 65 and older suffer from mild cognitive impairment (Petersen et al. 2018). Mild cognitive impairment is a condition where people may have a slight but noticeable loss of memory but where they are still able to carry out their normal daily activities.

A number of medications may impact memory and function when used alone or in combination with other drugs, which may lead to a diagnosis of cognitive impairment.

Medication may interfere with attention, memory, language, executive function or other cognitive faculties, and this may be temporary or long-term. Did you ever forget where you parked your car? Where you put your keys? Or a friend’s name? Some medications can contribute to these lapses.

As we age, our brains become more sensitive to medication effects. Avoiding medications that can affect the memory is key to optimizing brain function. Guidelines strongly recommend that patients with a diagnosis of cognitive impairment or dementia avoid taking medications that may make cognition worse (Beers Criteria 2019). Often, there is a safer or more effective alternative therapy. Improvement in cognition may be observed after stopping these medications.

Which medications can affect memory and brain function?

Specific medications can affect the memory and brain function. Here are a few examples*:

Sleeping pills: Benzodiazepines (e.g.: lorazepam (Ativan®), oxazepam (Serax®), diazepam (Valium®))

  • These medications are generally prescribed to people who have trouble sleeping. Learn more here

Sleeping pills: Non-benzodiazepine prescription sedatives or “z-drugs” (e.g.: zopiclone (Imovane®), zolpidem (Sublinox®))

  • These medications are generally prescribed to people who have trouble sleeping. Learn more here.

Over-the-counter sleeping aids (e.g.: diphenhydramine (Unisom®, ZzzQuil®, Tylenol Nighttime®, Advil Nighttime®))

  • These medications are available without a prescription and generally taken for insomnia (trouble sleeping). Learn more here.

Some anti-allergy medications (e.g.: hydroxyzine (Atarax®), diphenhydramine (Benadryl®))

  • These medications are generally used to treat itchy skin or allergies. More rarely, they may be used to treat insomnia or anxiety. Learn more here.

Some anti-nausea medications (e.g.: dimenhydrinate (Gravol®))

  • These medications are generally used to treat motion sickness when travelling.

Antipsychotics (e.g.: quetiapine (Seroquel®), risperidone (Risperdal®))

  • These medications are often prescribed inappropriately for sleep or anxiety, or to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Learn more here.

Some antidepressants (e.g.: amitriptyline (Elavil®), nortriptyline (Aventyl®), paroxetine (Paxil®))

  • Although these medications are called antidepressants, they are prescribed for a number of reasons, including for sleep, the prevention of migraines, the treatment of pain or depression.

Medications for urinary incontinence (e.g.: oxybutynin (Ditropan®))

  • These medications may be prescribed to treat overactive bladder (a condition where a person has sudden urges to urinate).

Muscle relaxants (e.g.: cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril®), methocarbamol (Robaxin®, Robaxacet®, Robax Platinum®))

  • These medications are generally used to treat spasms, and neck or back pain.

Opioid (narcotic) medications (e.g.: codeine (Tylenol NO. 3®), morphine (Statex®), hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), oxycodone (Percocet®))

  • These medications may be prescribed for acute pain (e.g. short term pain after a surgery), as well as chronic pain.

Medications frequently used to treat nerve pain or epilepsy (e.g.: pregabalin (Lyrica®), gabapentin (Neurontin®))

*Medications other than those listed may impact function and memory.

Are you interested in learning about different ways to help maintain good brain health and prevent dementia? Find out more here.

If you think one of your medications may be affecting your memory, speak to your doctor, pharmacist or nurse.

Do not make any changes to your medication without proper medical supervision.

Did you know that medications can also affect balance and lead to falls?