How quitting smoking could be the next step you take for better brain health


By Quang Tran | Thursday 17 February 2022

If you smoke and have thought about quitting, or you’re just interested in learning about the science behind smoking and dementia, this is the post for you.

The link between smoking and dementia

Many people are aware that smoking can cause conditions like lung cancer and heart disease, but fewer people know that it can also increase your risk of dementia.

In 2020, a group of researchers put together the Lancet Commission on Dementia prevention, intervention, and care. They found that up to four in ten cases could be linked to 12 health, lifestyle and environmental risk factors that could be in our power to change.

Quitting smoking is ranked the third most significant out of these risk factors.

What are the benefits of quitting smoking?

Dr Sara ImarisioDr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, says:
“Generally what’s good for your heart is good for the brain. Not smoking or even quitting smoking is one of the best ways to improve your overall health. It has been shown to reduce the risk of developing dementia, heart disease and stroke”.

We’re learning more all the time about the science behind smoking and its effects on dementia risk.

Some studies suggest chemicals in cigarette smoke could increase harmful chemical reactions such as oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. Oxidative stress occurs when there is a shift in the normal balance between toxic molecules in our cells and the antioxidants that remove them.

This can damage cells and the process has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Smoking has also been linked with damage to the brain’s outer layer, called the cortex. This part of the brain becomes thinner with age.  Researchers think smoking may speed this process up and could lead to a decline in a person’s ability to think and process information.

As well direct impacts on the brain, smoking has been shown to thicken artery walls and narrow the blood supply around the body. This increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, which are both known risk factors for vascular dementia.

Stroke is a major cause of vascular dementia. An ischemic stroke happens when a blockage in a blood vessel starves the brain of oxygen and fuel, causing nerve cells to die

Is it too late to quit smoking?

It’s never too late to quit.

Evidence suggests that quitting later in life can still significantly improve brain health and increase life expectancy.

Researchers in Oxford followed the habits of a group of British doctors across a fifty-year study. They found that quitting smoking as late as aged 60 could increase life expectancy by as much as three years.

The benefits of this improve the younger you choose to quit, with those quitting aged 30 gaining up to 10 years of life expectancy.

In 2015, researchers from Montreal suggested that some of the damage to the brain’s cortex caused by smoking could be reversed if you stop smoking.

Practical tips

If you’re considering quitting, or you know someone that is, there are plenty of resources to help make the process easier.

If you’re living in the UK, the NHS provides services including the Quit Smoking app, three month plans and local stop smoking services all for free.

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Quang Tran