This is your brain on smoking
November 28th, 2012
05:00 PM ET

This is your brain on smoking

That cigarette may be doing more damage than meets the eye. If you’ve been smoking for an extended period of time, you’re likely familiar with at least some – if not all – of the bodily symptoms associated with smoking, including but certainly not limited to: Cravings, coughing, shortness of breath and changes to teeth, hair and skin. Coronary heart disease and/or lung cancer might not be far behind.

But a new study published in the journal Age & Ageing concludes that smoking can damage your mind, too. A consistent association was observed between smoking and lower cognitive functioning, including memory.

The bottom line: Smoking and long-term high blood pressure appear to increase the risk of cognitive decline.

How researchers did it

Researchers at Kings College London set out to explore the association between cardiovascular and stroke risk and cognitive decline in adults over the age of 50. Working with a nationally representative sample of nearly 9,000 participants, the study's authors analyzed data on smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index (BMI).

At four- and eight-year follow-up appointments, participants’ cognitive performance was measured. To test their memories, researchers taught the participants 10 unrelated words, then gauged both their immediate and delayed recall capabilities. Subjects were also asked to name as many animals as they could in one minute, a test designed to measure verbal fluency. Lastly, the subjects were asked to cross through specified letters in a series (letter cancellation), to measure attention, mental speed and visual scanning.

What they found

The study concludes that smoking has the most consistent impact on hastening ageing in the brain. Those with high BMI, blood pressure, or stroke risk scores performed worse on cognitive tasks, but those results varied more widely across the three objective tests.

“Cognitive decline becomes more common with aging and for an increasing number of people, interferes with daily functioning and well-being,” said Dr. Alex Dregan, lecturer in Translational Epidemiology and Public Health at Kings College London. “Some older people can become forgetful, have trouble remembering common words, or have problems organizing daily tasks more than others.”


To be clear, the researchers did not draw any conclusions as to whether a decline in brain function could lead to conditions such as dementia.

Asked for a comment, William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Association, responded by acknowledging the growing body of research over more than a decade – including this new study – that point toward several factors that may impact our risk of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline, the strongest being heart health risk factors.

"These (factors) include physical inactivity, smoking and poor control of blood pressure, blood lipids and blood sugar levels," Thies said. "Currently, the strongest data for lifestyle-based Alzheimer's risk reduction is for physical activity."

Dregan concurs. “We have identified a number of risk factors which could be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, all of which could be modifiable,” he said. “This offers valuable knowledge for future prevention and treatment interventions.”

"We recognize and agree that smoking has serious health consequences and causes serious diseases," said David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA. "That's why we think it's...  important the FDA has oversight of the industry to conduct further research about the harm caused by tobacco use and ways to reduce that harm."

"For those people who are concerned about the health effects of smoking," Sylvia said, "the best thing to do is to quit."

Post by:
Filed under: Addiction • Alzheimer's • Brain • Cancer • Heart • Longevity • Smoking • Stroke

soundoff (139 Responses)
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    December 3, 2012 at 18:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. JD

    This is crap, as far as said here no other factors but smoking were counted which can have a HUGE impact on health, most lower income people smoke and are the majority of smokers(but not all), as well as are the most likely to eat like crap(I personally am very low income and eat only organics & superfoods, so this by no means applys to all nor just low income) the kind of tobacco was not considered, organic or no addin vs commercial cigarettes nor was the other medication looked at NOR was the fact tobacco is a nootrpic and can help prevent mental decline by uptaking acetylcholine nor was its maoi property's which can also help prevent mental decline taking into account

    December 5, 2012 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Iknowbetter

      I totlally agree. This is bull.

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  3. dhfabian

    Few smoke, and very few people have ANY exposure to tobacco smoke whatsoever. Can we start getting serious about addressing disease rather than just trying to scapegoat a few people? The most carcinogenic type of smoke is the kind that contains oil particles – and the great majority of Americans have excessive exposure to it. The primary source of this smoke is motor vehicle traffic. Simply starting your car causes far, far more harm than a crowd of tobacco smokers. We ignore this issue by shrugging our shoulders and saying there is nothing we can do about it - people wanna drive as much as they wanna drive! Nevertheless, the American insistence that driving is a birthright kills far more people each year than any other cause of lung disease (on cardio-vascular disease, obesity takes the lead). And this doesn't even touch on the grave environmental damage caused by motor vehicles, including the global warming that threatens to wipe out life on earth. We have to start using serious social pressure to get the public to invest in public transportation (still very bad, but can greatly reduce the number of motor vehicles spewing pollution), pressuring them to give up their cars.

    December 5, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Dear iam a civil engineer & facing memory problem i take 3-4 for smoke a day. i forget the thing like some time food, instant talk , discussion, formulas, missing my study also iam in trouble some body tell me the treatment for the same please.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.