Researchers say smoking can damage heart health as well as brain health.
Does smoking raise your risk of memory problems later in life?
A new study conducted by researchers at Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea suggests that it does.
The researchers followed more than 46,000 men, ages 60 and older, from 2006 to 2013.
They found that men who had never smoked and those who had quit smoking were less likely than current smokers to develop dementia over the course of the study.
Compared to current smokers, men who had never smoked were 19 percent less likely to develop dementia in general. They were 18 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease in particular.
Compared to men who still smoked, those who had quit smoking for four years or more were 14 percent less likely to develop dementia in general. They were 15 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease in particular.
These findings add to a growing body of research that suggests that smoking negatively affects brain health and memory in later life.
“The idea that smoking impacts your brain health and makes you at increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia is something that we’ve seen before,” Heather Snyder, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.
For example, a meta-analysis of 19 studies previously found that people who had never smoked were less likely to develop dementia than those who currently smoked.
Likewise, past studies have also found that quitting smoking can lower the odds of developing cognitive decline later in life.
“So I think this just underscores that message,” Snyder said, “that smoking does impact your brain health long term.”
Heart health linked to brain health
In 2016, an estimated 17 percent of men and 13 percent of women in the United States were smokers, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Smoking has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers, lung disease, heart disease, and many other health conditions.
While more research is needed, the negative effects of smoking on the heart and blood vessels might help account for the link between smoking and dementia.
“We see a link between heart health and brain health,” Snyder explained.
“Our hearts are responsible for pumping blood throughout our entire body,” she continued, “and our brain uses probably about 20 to 25 percent of that blood, of the nutrients within that blood, for its processes.”
Smoking can tighten and damage blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow to the brain. This can deprive the brain of essential nutrients and oxygen.
Smoking also raises the risk that blood clots will develop in the brain, which can result in strokes. This can lead to a type of dementia known as vascular dementia.
Moreover, reactive compounds in tobacco smoke cause oxidative stress, which can also damage brain tissue.
Healthy lifestyle changes
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, avoiding tobacco smoke is one of many steps that people can take to potentially lower their risk of developing dementia in later life.
“If you don’t yet smoke, for your brain health, it’s probably not a great idea to start,” Snyder said, “and if you do smoke, stopping that behavior is beneficial.”
It’s also important to get enough sleep, eat a nutritious diet, socialize with others, and stay both physically and mentally active, Snyder suggested.
“Studies have shown that people who continue to learn new things — whether it’s taking a class at a local college or taking up canasta or ballroom dancing — that’s beneficial,” she said.
“Being [physically] active also seems to be beneficial for brain health,” she continued. “Conversely, inactivity has been shown to increase the risk for later-life cognitive decline.”
If you currently smoke and are interested in kicking the habit, consider making an appointment with your doctor to discuss strategies to quit.
Your doctor might recommend over-the-counter or prescription medications to help curb nicotine cravings.
They might also recommend individual, group, or telephone counseling to help you manage the challenges of quitting.