A new study published this week in the journal Age and Aging has found there appears to be a link between smoking and memory problems in people over 50.
The study was carried out by researchers at King’s College, London. The damaging impact of smoking has been well established, but researchers sort to understand whether there was any link between smoking and mental decline in the over 50s.
The researchers took 8,800 people all over 50 years old and assessed data about the test group’s health and lifestyle choices from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (Elsa) to be sure they were all roughly similar in terms of general health. The group was then divided into two groups, one for smokers and one for non-smokers.
The test group was then subjected to cognitive tests, such as making participants learn new words and then recalling them after a certain period of time, seeing how well they could track letter cancellations through applied attention, or seeing how many objects or animals they could name in under a minute. These tests were designed to examine overall mental ability but also things like long term and short term memory, attention and planning skills.
The group was then tested again after four and then eight years.
Researchers found that after four years there was little difference between smokers and non-smokers, yet after eight years there was a marked decline in cognitive function among smokers, with all three performance measures that were assessed in the trial having suffered. Memory recall was particularly impaired.
The study links a decline in cardiovascular health and an increase in blood pressure — exacerbated by smoking — to overall mental decline, saying:
These suggestions are compatible with a domino effect whereby preliminary memory impairment as a result of high BP is later translated in impaired executive functioning performance. It is equally plausible to suggest that executive functioning decline over the short term presents a higher threshold that entails the combined association of multiple vascular risk factors.
“Cognitive decline becomes more common with ageing and for an increasing number of people interferes with daily functioning and well-being.
“We have identified a number of risk factors which could be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, all of which, could be modifiable.”
He added: “We need to make people aware of the need to do some lifestyle changes because of the risk of cognitive decline.”
The study also found that being overweight also seemed to affect subjects’ mental capacity, but to a lesser extent.
It has long been established that there is casual link between high blood pressure and dementia risk. It is too early to say whether smoking after the age of 50 presents a direct possibility of elevating dementia risk, but this research would seem to suggest there is cause for further analysis.
Jessica Smith, from the Alzheimer’s Society, is quoted as saying: “We all know smoking, a high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and a high BMI (body mass index) is bad for our heart. This research adds to the huge amount of evidence that also suggests they can be bad for our head too. One in three people over 65 will develop dementia but there are things people can do to reduce their risk. Eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked and not smoking can all make a difference.”
This research is important because, for the first time, it suggests a reason why blood pressure reducing drugs not have demonstrated a clear benefit for stopping mental decline. If blood pressure has only a gradual effect on the brain over a long period of time, it may take much longer than previously thought for the results to manifest themselves.
The research also highlights a need to intervene before the erosion of mental faculties, suggesting a need for more targeted campaigns to urge smokers to quit sooner rather than later.
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