Oxybutinyn, a drug that is regularly prescribed on the NHS for urinary incontinence, has been found to increase the risk of developing dementia. Thousands of patients across the UK take the medication and its usage has increased by 31 per cent in the last five years alone.
The way the drug works is by preventing the muscles in the bladder from going into spasm, which in term causes overactive bladder syndrome. It is a condition that affects six million people in Britain, many of them elderly, but the side effects of oxybutinyn could outweigh the benefits.
New research suggests that cognitive decline and dementia are among the long-term issues that can arise from taking the drug. The data leading to this analysis was presented at the European Association of Urology conference in London and has led to many doctors speaking out against it.
Dr Daniel Pucheril of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, who headed up the research, said: “Doctors need to look closely at the levels of prescribing. Despite evidence of side effects, physicians are not commonly checking for cognitive effects in those using these medications.”
The study found that people who take the tablets for more than three years see their chances of developing dementia within ten years increase by 54 per cent. This is particularly alarming when 1.7 million prescriptions for oxybutinyn were handed out in England in 2015.
One of the reasons that the drug is so widely prescribed and users have skyrocketed since 2010, is that it is relatively cheap compared to other medications on the market for the same problems. Oxybutinyn, which must be taken between two and four times a day, is priced at 4p a tablet, while alternatives can cost as much as £1 a pill.
Professor Marcus Drake, a urologist at Bristol University, told the Daily Mail: “Frankly my view is that this drug should not be prescribed at all. It is not well tolerated, it is not as effective and it carries these risks.”
Oxybutinyn is among the most commonly used medications in a class of drugs called anticholinergics, which also includes sleeping pills, antidepressants and antihistamines. While this type of medication is known to be associated with memory problems, the side effects are worse with oxybutinyn.
Professor Drake explained to the news provider that oxybutinyn has a far smaller molecule size than other drugs in the same class. This means that it can penetrate the brain more easily and therefore have a more widespread and severe effect on cognitive impairment.
Dementia is a serious issue in the UK, with some 850,000 people living with the condition, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. This is expected to increase to one million by 2025 and two million by 2051. At present, there is no cure for it, although it is hoped that more advancements in preventing its development and stopping dementia in its tracks through early diagnosis could help moving forward.