September 16, 2021

Understanding the difference between dementia symptoms and side effects of medications can help seniors get better care.

Disorientation. Confusion. Memory loss. While these are definitely hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, they may also come about from taking certain medications. Before immediately assuming an inevitable diagnosis of dementia, review the following list of prescribed medicines that may cause similar side effects that look like dementia symptoms.

Pain Medications

Opioids specifically are reported to affect short-term memory. The good news is that the issue is typically resolved once pain remedies are no longer being taken.

Acetylcholine Blockers

Prescribed by doctors to treat insomnia, IBS, urinary incontinence, depression, heart problems, Parkinson’s, vertigo, and other conditions, medications with anticholinergic effects that block acetylcholine’s effects in the brain may cause memory disturbance, agitation, confusion, and delirium, among other serious health problems. An example is tolteridine. 


These medications help treat both insomnia and anxiety, with sedative qualities that can also cause cognitive problems. Long-term use of benzodiazepines can also be a risk factor for developing dementia. Examples include lorazepam (Ativan) and temazepam (Restoril).


Mood and cognitive changes, psychotic symptoms, and delirium are just some of the complications associated with corticosteroid use. Prednisone is one common example.

Chemo Medications

Known as “chemo brain,” chemotherapy drugs impact some individuals in the areas of memory, focus and attention, and executive functioning. These changes can persist, even after ending chemo treatment.


Prescribed to reduce cholesterol, statins, have a suspected link to memory and mental slowing and decline. While there are inconsistent results from various studies, it is important to know about the possibility for cognitive complications.

It’s also important to understand that many prescription medications impact older adults differently than those who are younger. This is due to some extent to the reduced efficiency in an older person’s kidneys and liver, along with interactions with other medications being taken and a decreased cognitive reserve in the brain. Complications can also be further exacerbated by alcohol use. 

Make sure to speak with the doctor before starting, stopping, or changing any medication, and about whether any cognitive complications you are observing in a senior could be the reaction to a medication instead of dementia symptoms.

Continuum’s St. Louis Alzheimer’s experts are also readily available to help older adults in a variety of ways – medication reminders to make sure meds are taken just as prescribed, transportation to doctors’ appointments, picking up prescriptions, and keeping an eye out for any changes in condition and reporting them immediately, just to name a few. Reach out to us at (314) 863-9912 or (636) 861-3336 for help any time.