A new study conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, identifies smoking a major cause of brain atrophy and related cognitive decline, particularly in older smokers. While the term itself might sound silly, brain shrinkage or brain atrophy is a factor strongly associated with an elevated risk of cognitive impairment, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Published in the medical journal Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science, the study analyzed data from 32,094 participants of European descent in the UK Biobank. The study included a close look at brain imaging data. The findings strongly suggest that smokers are more susceptible to brain atrophy. In fact, the more one smoked, the greater the level of decline.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that quitting smoking at any time can halt further gray matter loss. However, there is a caveat to this good news: Research indicates that your brain will not recover lost brain mass once the shrinkage occurs. Quitting smoking will halt the damage but will not reverse it. This provides a powerful and compelling reason to quit smoking today.
Basically, everyone knows about the harmful effects of smoking on the lungs and heart, which have long been recognized. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons that smokers quit. This study, however, sought to address the lesser-explored impact on the brain, which had been hinted at in previous studies but never established quite as conclusively as it is in this study.
One of the study’s major highlights is that a whopping 14% of all Alzheimer’s cases may be linked to smoking. This is a significant and damning implication of tobacco use and its impact on cognitive function. What’s more, the study controlled for both genetic and behavioral factors. While genetics played some role in the results of the study, including both brain volume and one’s propensity to smoke, as well as brain volume itself, the study found a clear link between accelerated loss of brain volume and smoking.
Brain atrophy is caused by the loss of neurons and their connections, which in turn impairs proper brain function. Brain atrophy, which inhibits communication between different regions of the brain, is observed in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders involving cognitive decline.
The study’s findings underscore the critical nature of the effects of smoking on the brain. While the study is groundbreaking, its results should not be shocking. Cigarettes contain toxic chemicals and lower the oxygen levels in the blood of smokers, both of which are probably significant drivers of the brain atrophy linked to smoking. Other causes likely include reduced blood flow, oxidative stress, vascular damage, and inflammation, all of which are likewise linked to brain atrophy.
The study’s findings have implications far beyond the individual health of smokers. Indeed, as the Western world has an aging population – many of whom were active, heavy smokers during earlier decades when this was much more socially acceptable and the health benefits were not fully known – smoking might be a bigger ticking time bomb for public health than was previously expected.