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Cognitive decline provides another reason to quit smoking

Smokers have scores of reasons to give up the habit. In addition to contributing to cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other lung ailments, cancers elsewhere in the body, wrinkled skin, and diseases of the eyes, nose and mouth, smoking may also contribute to cognitive decline.

There's growing evidence suggesting that using cigarettes can affect the brain in negative ways, including causing cognitive decline as early as age 45. According to the study "Impact of Smoking on Cognitive Decline in Early Old Age," led by Severine Sabia, as published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry, smoking is a possible risk factor for dementia, although the impact smoking has on the brain may have been underestimated in elderly populations because of the general shorter life span of smokers.

Study participants were given a battery of tests in memory, vocabulary and executive function that included reasoning and fluency, and a global cognitive score. Both men and women participated (5,099 men and 2,137 women, with a mean age of 56), and smoking history was recorded over the 10-year assessment period. An analysis revealed that a cognitive decline occurred in all tests except vocabulary among all participants, but mostly in men. However, faster cognitive decline was observed among current smokers compared with those who had never smoked. The size of the effect associated with smoking was similar to that of 10 years of aging.

Findings are similar to other research being done on the topic of smoking and its impact on the brain. The Alzheimer's Society states that smoking is bad for the heart, lungs, and vascular system — including the blood vessels that feed oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Recent research has shown that smoking is a significant risk factor for vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease, with smokers twice as likely to develop the disease as nonsmokers.

The Mayo Clinic defines vascular dementia as problems with reasoning, planning, judgement, memory and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to the brain. Factors that increase the risk for vascular dementia are high cholesterol and smoking.

Dementia can be brought on by stroke, whether it's a large stroke or a series of mini-strokes. WebMD says vascular dementia can occur over time as "silent" strokes build up — something that seems to occur more readily in smokers and those with cardiovascular disease.

Symptoms of cognitive decline that may result from smoking and vascular dementia can include:

• problems with short-term memory

• wandering or getting lost

• trouble managing money

• difficulty planning or following through on activities

• loss of bladder or bowel control

• delusions or hallucinations

• inappropriate emotions

• impaired coordination or balance

More research is needed with regard to the association between smoking and cognitive decline related to dementia. If research continues to prove a correlation, greater warning may be issued about smoking and its effect on parts of the body beyond the heart and lungs. Even at this early junction, current research suggests yet another reason to quit lighting up.