Changes in anticholinergic load from regular prescribed medications in palliative care as death approaches

Palliat Med. 2009 Apr;23(3):257-65. doi: 10.1177/0269216309102528.


Although there is an understandable emphasis on the side effects of individual medications, the cumulative effects of medications have received little attention in palliative care prescribing. Anticholinergic load reflects a cumulative effect of medications that may account for several symptoms and adverse health outcomes frequently encountered in palliative care. A secondary analysis of 304 participants in a randomised controlled trial had their cholinergic load calculated using the Clinician-Rated Anticholinergic Scale (modified version) longitudinally as death approached from medication data collected prospectively by study nurses on each visit. Mean time from referral to death was 107 days, and mean 4.8 visits were conducted in which data were collected. Relationships to key factors were explored. Data showed that anticholinergic load rose as death approached because of increasing use of medications for symptom control. Symptoms significantly associated with increasing anticholinergic load included dry mouth and difficulty concentrating (P < 0.05). There were also significant associations with increasing anticholinergic load and decreasing functional status (Australia-modified Karnofsky Performance Scale; and quality of life (P < 0.05). This study has documented in detail the longitudinal anticholinergic load associated with medications used in a palliative care population between referral and death, demonstrating the biggest contributor to anticholinergic load in a palliative care population is from symptom-specific medications, which increased as death approached.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cholinergic Antagonists / adverse effects*
  • Comorbidity
  • Death*
  • Drug Interactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Karnofsky Performance Status / statistics & numerical data*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / complications*
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Palliative Care / methods*
  • Palliative Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Polypharmacy*
  • Quality of Life
  • Referral and Consultation
  • South Australia
  • Time Factors


  • Cholinergic Antagonists

Associated data

  • ISRCTN/ISRCTN81117481