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Your Brain is Begging You: Stop Smoking!

Your Brain is Begging You: Stop Smoking!

You know that smoking carries serious health risks—asthma, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are just a few of the disorders linked to the habit. But did you know smoking is also associated with a higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline?

Observational studies have shown that people who smoke are at higher risk of developing all types of dementia and a much higher risk (up to 79%) for Alzheimer's disease, specifically [2]. Cigarettes and cigarette smoke contain more than 4,700 chemical compounds, including some that are highly toxic such as vinyl chloride, hydrogen cyanide, arsenic, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and heavy metals [1].

While scientists aren't sure which of these toxins are responsible for the increased risk, they do understand some of the ways tobacco products damage our brains. Some scientists have suggested that smoking raises the risk of Alzheimer's disease by increasing oxidative stress [3]. Smoking can also cause cerebrovascular disease and thus increase the risk of dementia and cognitive impairment caused by mini-strokes and hardening of the arteries (i.e., arteriosclerosis) [5]. Smokers also have a high risk of insomnia and sleep apnea, both of which could theoretically increase the risk of dementia [6-9].

The good news is that quitting can reduce your risk of dementia, because current smokers have a higher risk than former smokers [2][3]. And the risk of cognitive decline increases every day and with every cigarette [4].

While withdrawal comes with its own—temporary—challenges, there are many resources to help you quit, including online information from the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society.

  1. Swan GE, Lessov-Schlaggar CN (2007) The effects of tobacco smoke and nicotine on cognition and the brain. Neuropsychology review 17, 259-273.
  2. Barnes DE, Yaffe K (2011) The projected effect of risk factor reduction on Alzheimer's disease prevalence. Lancet Neurol 10, 819-828.
  3. Durazzo TC, Mattsson N, Weiner MW et al. (2014) Smoking and increased Alzheimer's disease risk: a review of potential mechanisms. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association 10, S122-145.
  4. Mons U, Schottker B, Muller H et al. (2013) History of lifetime smoking, smoking cessation and cognitive function in the elderly population. European journal of epidemiology 28, 823-831.
  5. Exalto LG, Quesenberry CP, Barnes D et al. (2013) Midlife risk score for the prediction of dementia four decades later. Alzheimer's & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer's Association.
  6. Jaehne A, Loessl B, Barkai Z et al. (2009) Effects of nicotine on sleep during consumption, withdrawal and replacement therapy. Sleep Med Rev 13, 363-377.
  7. Franklin KA, Lindberg E (2015) Obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder in the population-a review on the epidemiology of sleep apnea. J Thorac Dis 7, 1311-1322.
  8. Almondes KM, Costa MV, Malloy-Diniz LF et al. (2016) Insomnia and risk of dementia in older adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Psychiatr Res 77, 109-115.
  9. Shastri A, Bangar S, Holmes J (2016) Obstructive sleep apnoea and dementia: is there a link? International journal of geriatric psychiatry 31, 400-405.

Photo: Lindsay Fox

Yuko Hara, PhD, is Director of Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. Dr. Hara was previously an Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she remains an adjunct faculty member. Her research focused on brain aging, specifically how estrogens and reproductive aging influence the aging brain's synapses and mitochondria. She earned a doctorate in neurology and neuroscience at Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University and a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University, with additional study at Keio University in Japan. Dr. Hara has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications, including articles in PNAS and Journal of Neuroscience.

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