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Taking over-the-counter medications for colds, flu and allergies may seem harmless, but a new study warns that certain drugs are linked to an increased risk of dementia.

The class of medications, called anticholinergics, are sold over-the-counter and by prescription for many chronic conditions. They include sleep aids, hay fever pills, and flu symptom Medication Methadone relievers.

Anticholinergics work by blocking a specific neurotransmitter in the brain and body, said Dr. Alexandra Sowa, an internist and clinical instructor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

"This class of drugs covers many things -- everything that treats insomnia, depression to COPD and bladder problems. It is a very common medication, so it's in many people's medicine cabinets," Sowa told CBS News.

Anticholinergics include antihistamines, anti-psychotics, anti-vertigo drugs, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal drugs, and muscle relaxants, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Some commonly used anticholinergic drug brands include Benadryl, Tylenol PM, Advil PM, Dimetapp, Dramamine, Paxil, Unisom, the opioid pain medication Demerol, and the bladder drug Vesicare.

The new study, published in JAMA Neurology, looked at some of the side effects that have been known about for a decade, and one of them is cognitive impairment.

Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine studied about 500 older people whose average age was in the mid-seventies, and who did not have a previous history of dementia. They conducted cognitive testing on the participants, evaluating simple memory recall, and they looked at higher cognitive function such as math skills and decision-making ability.

"What they found was that people who took this medication had higher rates of cognitive impairment," Sowa said.

But what makes the study different from previous research is that the scientists also scanned the participants' brains.

"They actually found physical changes that were different in these patients from other patients who weren't on this type of drugs," Sowa said.

The drugs can be easily purchased at pharmacies and grocery store chains.

Mike Tringale, a spokesperson for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which represents over-the-counter drug makers, told CBS News, "It's important to help people understand the science without creating hysteria."

He said over-the-counter products are only approved for short-term use and that the study didn't look at how long people were taking them or the dose.

"There were some missing pieces," he said

"It is important to remember that the active ingredients are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recognized as safe Methadone Centers and effective when taken as instructed on the product label," Tringale added.

Sowa said, "The takeaway here is that just because it's over-the-counter does not necessarily mean it's safe for Opioid Therapy you to use long term. I want everyone talking to their doctor if they're using any of these medications on a regular basis."

People need to know what's in their medicines, she said. "They have side effects and there may be increased risk down the road of significant cognitive impairment. We can't say that one causes the other, but we're now starting to see increased rates of association."

"We know based on previous studies that as little use as 60 days, or even 90 days non-consecutively over the course of a lifetime, can be associated with these risks. It's not every night for 30 years, it's sometimes or sporadically," she said.

Sowa said many patients come to her and don't even mention over-the-counter medicines they're taking when she asks about their medications. She said be sure to tell your doctor about risks factors such as a family history of dementia, and to consider alternatives.

"Just because medication is easiest, doesn't necessarily mean it's the best. So when it comes to difficulty sleeping, there are lots of holistic techniques," se said.

Alternatives to sleep drugs, for example, can include good sleep hygiene -- turning off the television a few hours before bedtime, getting more exercise and cutting back on caffeine. Sowa also recommended trying cognitive behavioral therapy for better sleep.

"It's retraining your body how to fall asleep," she said.

And when it comes to allergies, there are many alternatives to Benadryl, an anticholinergic and so-called first generation antihistamine. Second- and third-generation antihistamines, including brands such as Claritin, Zyrtec and Allegra, are not anticholinergics. But talk to your doctor before switching to a new drug.

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There's hardly a man who doesn't enjoy his drink, but few among us know what the happy elixir does to the body and the mind. This FAQ on alcohol is not meant to turn you away from your beer, but to let you know what happens when you throw a few ones back.

Why does alcohol lower inhibitions?

Alcohol acts as a sedative on the central nervous system, which explains the impaired speech, vision, coordination, and concentration. But the part of the brain it affects the most is the part responsible for behavior and emotion. Your sense of judgment is weakened, and suddenly speaking your mind doesn't seem so bad. You feel braver since your socially conditioned safety stops or filters are circumvented. This is why drunken people sometimes think they're OK to drive.

Can we develop a higher tolerance to alcohol?

Any fast-living college dude will tell you that it's getting more and more expensive for him to get drunk. No kidding. Prolonged alcohol use does increase your tolerance to the stuff. The body becomes more efficient at metabolizing the alcohol -- the process is up to 72% faster in alcoholics -- so it takes more booze to achieve the same drunken state. But beyond that, your organs simply become less sensitive to alcohol, so you don't feel it as much. Be careful; this is a precursor to permanent tissue damage. Good thing you read this FAQ on alcohol before you skin blisters yellow.

Why do we sometimes get sick when drinking?

Like many of us, you've probably had an upset stomach or thrown up at one point after drinking. A byproduct of alcohol breakdown by the liver is acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. It is, in fact, this molecule that causes impairment, not the ethanol in your drink. In high concentrations, acetaldehyde attacks the liver, the brain and the lining of the stomach. This is what causes the familiar upset stomach and heartburn. If it's too much for the body to handle, it forces the stuff out, resulting in a make-out session with a toilet bowl. Acetaldehyde poisoning is compounded when different alcohols are mixed.

Is it bad to drink alcohol on an empty stomach?

It's bad only if you plan on enjoying your night to its fullest. When you drink on an empty stomach, there's no food to slow the absorption of the booze. Result: the alcohol gets absorbed faster (within five minutes) and you get intoxicated more rapidly. You'll get just as drunk as if your stomach was full, but it will hit you harder. On the other hand, drinking alcohol on a full stomach allows you to go through a gradual ascent into tipsiness.

Why do we get dehydrated from alcohol?

The body starts breaking down alcohol as soon as you take your first sip, in order to safely excrete it. To properly dispose of it, your liver needs water to dilute the toxins, so it pulls water reserves from other parts of the body. But since alcohol is a diuretic (it stimulates urination), water leaves your body at a higher rate, so your liver must obtain water from other organs, including your brain, which essentially leaves you high and dry.

Can we die from drinking alcohol?

Yes, and Rehab Treatment in more ways than one. Conservative U.S. government estimates put the annual toll of alcohol-related deaths at over 75,000 in 2001. We're talking about a variety of conditions, including liver and heart disease caused by alcoholism, suicide, drunk driving, and just drinking yourself to death. In fact, a blood alcohol level above 0.45 grams/100 milliliters of blood will kill you either from brain malfunction or respiratory arrest.

Not only that, U.S. government estimates put the years of potential life lost due to drinking at 2.3 million in 2001; that's more than two million more years that Americans could have lived if they didn't drink.

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What effect does alcohol have on the liver?

Your liver is your body's detox center, and it works full-time to rid your body of the poisons you ingest. Alcohol is one of the liver's biggest foes, constantly attacking its cells. If you drink moderately, your liver has enough time to repair itself. However, persistently high alcohol levels in the blood will cause your liver cells to die, forming scar tissue. This is called cirrhosis, and it can be lethal.

Why do some men become emotional when drinking alcohol?

You already know that alcohol dulls your judgment and your inhibitions. This may bring out some emotions that are usually kept in check by your "show no feelings" strongman persona. Although alcohol increases the female hormone estrogen in men, there is no evidence that this affects their emotions in any way. However, prolonged alcohol use and the related estrogen boosts can cause loss of body hair and muscle mass, enlarged breasts, shrunken testicles, and impotence in men.

How long does alcohol remain in the body?

There's no single answer for all people since the rate of alcohol metabolism varies and you have to factor in the rate at which it's absorbed. On average, healthy people eliminate alcohol at a rate of 0.5 ounces per hour. This can change according to how much you had to eat before, your body mass, your gender (men metabolize faster), your age, how hydrated you are, and how efficient your liver is (alcoholics tend to eliminate alcohol faster, though this changes once the liver becomes damaged).

Why does drinking red wine make our teeth red?

Like coffee, nicotine and some fruits, red wine has colored molecules that get deposited on the tooth enamel. The ones in red wine are called tannins and polyphenols, which are also antioxidants. Some dentures and treated teeth are especially susceptible to red wine stains, so ask your dentist about methods of prevention.

Why can't we drink while taking antibiotics?

Despite a widespread myth that combining antibiotics and alcohol can be dangerous, alcohol can only diminish the efficiency of a few antibiotics, namely metronidazole, cefamandole and oral ketoconazole. Though not life-threatening, the mix can cause unpleasant side effects, like flushing and extreme drunkenness. Otherwise, alcohol can simply delay recovery.

However, mixing alcohol with certain painkillers, especially acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) and acetylsalicylic acid (Aspirin), can increase the risk of damage to the intestinal lining, which can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers. In chronic heavy drinkers, excessive acetaminophen use can increase the risk of liver toxicity.

Booze It Up Safely

Now that you know some of the effects that alcohol has on your body, use the information for your own benefit. Have fun, but always drink responsibly.
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