Smoking causes irreversible brain shrinkage, increasing dementia risk

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Cigarette smoking causes brain shrinkage, according to a new study. Loss in brain volume also raises the risk of dementia. Ed Bock/Getty Images
  • Cigarette smoking causes brain shrinkage, and the more and longer a person smokes, the greater the damage is, according to a new study.
  • Loss in brain volume raises the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Smoking cessation can help stop brain shrinkage, but it cannot be reversed.
  • The study authors recommend that anyone at any age who smokes should prioritize quitting.

Cigarette smoking causes the brain to shrink, according to a new study from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO (WashUMed).

Brain shrinkage is also associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The study’s results show that quitting smoking at any time stopped further gray matter loss. However, the brain does not recover its original mass once shrinkage occurs.

It has long been known that smoking is harmful to the lungs and heart, though not as much research has been dedicated to its effect on the brain.

The research team, led by senior author Dr. Laura J. Bierut, director of WashUMed’s Health & Behavior Research Center, aimed to fill a gap in the current understanding of the harmful effects of smoking.

The study’s findings were recently published in Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science.

“Quitting smoking is one of the most important things that you can do for your health,” Dr. Bierut said.

“The more you smoke and the longer you smoke, the more you age your brain. The other thing I always say to people who are older and who smoke — it is never too late to quit. There are health benefits of quitting even later in life.”

“Overall, the world’s population is getting older, and we have a wave of older people who will be developing dementia. This is a major public Health problem, and we need to focus on reducing the modifiable risk factors for dementia so that we can have a Healthy older population.”

— Dr. Laura J. Bierut, senior study author and director of WashUMed’s Health & Behavior Research Center

At the same time, Dr. Trinh noted that it’s not just adults who should stop smoking.

“Teenage and young adult brains are still developing, and exposure to the harmful effects of smoking during these critical periods could lead to more significant long-term damage, Dr. Trinh said.

“It is known that the earlier an individual starts smoking, the greater the potential harm over their lifetime.”

Dr. Robert Miller, a doctor of internal medicine with Vista Staffing, which offers physician search services in the United States, suggested a multi-modal approach to smoking cessation that involves counseling therapy. Dr. Miller was not involved in the study.

He said the aim of this approach is behavioral modification and supportive pharmacotherapy.

Dr. Miller cited seven medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that can help with smoking cessation, including:

  • nicotine replacement medicines (i.e., nicotine patches, lozenges, gum, oral inhaler, and nasal spray)
  • oral tablet medications (i.e., varenicline and bupropion SR)

“Working with others who have also beaten the habit and gaining success through a shared common goal can help individuals in their own journey,” Dr. Miller said.

It may also be helpful to replace the urge to smoke with healthy activities, such as reading or exercising.

Some people, noted Dr. Miller, find that their desire to smoke may be a response to certain triggers. Identifying and avoiding personal triggers can help break the smoking habit.

For those considering e-cigarettes as a means of quitting, vaping is not considered a safe or effective way to stop smoking.

Getting help with smoking cessation

For further help with quitting smoking, phone and text support is available through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Quitline at 1-800-784-8669 or by texting QUIT to 47848. You can find more quit-smoking tips here.

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