Using laxatives to clear up constipation can increase dementia risk

MINNEAPOLIS — People who often use laxatives to clear up conditions like constipation are more likely to develop dementia, a new study warns. Researchers working with the American Academy of Neurology reveal that regular use of these common medications sends the risk of dementia skyrocketing by more than 50 percent in comparison to those who avoid taking laxatives.

The findings, published in the journal Neurology, also show that people who only use osmotic laxatives — a type that attracts water to the colon in order to soften stool — experience even greater risks of cognitive decline. The research team notes that their study of more than 500,000 British adults does not prove that laxatives cause dementia, it only shows an association between the two.

Constipation and laxative use are common among middle-aged and older adults,” says study author Feng Sha, PhD, of the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a media release. “However, regular laxative use may change the microbiome of the gut, possibly affecting nerve signaling from the gut to the brain or increasing the production of intestinal toxins that may affect the brain. Our research found regular use of over-the-counter laxatives was associated with a higher risk of dementia, particularly in people who used multiple laxative types or osmotic laxatives.”

Dr. Sha notes that doctors don’t recommend osmotic and stimulant laxatives for regular use. However, some people still take these drugs often.

Taking multiple laxatives can nearly double dementia risk

The study involved over 502,000 participants from the UK biobank database. This group had an average age of 57 and no signs of dementia at the start of the experiment.

Out of this group, 18,235 people (3.6%) reported that they regularly used over-the-counter laxatives. The team defined regular use as taking laxatives most days of the week the month before the study began. Over an average of 10 years, 218 of those regularly taking laxatives (1.3%) developed dementia. Among those not taking laxatives regularly, only 1,969 people (0.4%) developed dementia.

The team took several factors, including age, sex, education, other illnesses, medication use, and a family history of dementia, into account during their researchers, Overall, people regularly using laxatives had a 51-percent increased risk of dementia onset compared to people who did not regularly use them.

Dr. Sha says the risk of dementia also increased with the number of laxative types used. For people using one type of laxative, the risk of developing dementia increased by 28 percent. That risk soared to 90 percent for people taking two or more types of laxatives. However, among people taking only one type, people only taking osmotic laxatives had a heightened risk of cognitive decline. Their chances of developing dementia increased by 64 percent in comparison to those not using laxatives.

“Finding ways to reduce a person’s risk of dementia by identifying risk factors that can be modified is crucial,” Sha concludes. “More research is needed to further investigate the link our research found between laxatives and dementia. If our findings are confirmed, medical professionals could encourage people to treat constipation by making lifestyle changes such as drinking more water, increasing dietary fiber and adding more activity into their daily lives.”

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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  1. Maybe it isn’t the laxatives but the poor diet that leads to constipation that is the real risk for dementia. Skip the fruits, vegetables and whole grains and you are setting yourself up for constipation. Not getting the nutrients in those foods could be contributing to the dementia risk.

  2. which do you doctors prefrer…”cronic constipation” or “dementia” …or making money?
    and, how do dementia patients remember to take their laxatives?

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