We all know smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. Now there is an added risk. Smoking may be associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia. Heavy smoking, meaning a pack or more a day, in mid-life may double the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia in late life.
Vascular dementia is an umbrella term that describes cognitive impairments caused by problems in blood vessels that feed the brain. The ailment is one of the most common forms of dementia, ranking only second to Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia is caused by chronic, reduced blood flow to the brain, usually as the result of a stroke or series of strokes. In many cases, the strokes are so small that one may not notice any symptoms. These are known as “silent strokes.” But over time, the damage adds up, leading to memory loss, confusion, and other signs of dementia.
Vascular dementia represents a challenge for those affected by it and their caretakers. But with an understanding of the condition, and a willingness to make important lifestyle changes, it may be possible to prevent further blockages and compensate for brain damage that has already occurred. Kicking the smoking habit may help.
Dementia in general is a non-specific illness syndrome (set of signs and symptoms) in which affected areas of cognition may be memory, attention, language, and problem solving. It is normally required to be present for at least 6 months to be diagnosed; cognitive dysfunction that has been seen only over shorter times, in particular less than weeks, must be termed delirium. In all types of general cognitive dysfunction, higher mental functions are affected first in the process.
Especially in the later stages of the condition, affected persons may be disoriented in time (not knowing what day of the week, day of the month, or even what year it is), in place (not knowing where they are), and in person (not knowing who they are or others around them). Dementia, though often treatable to some degree, is usually due to causes that are progressive and incurable.
Researchers in Finland, Sweden, and the United States looked at data from a group of 21, 123 people from different ethnic backgrounds. All were members of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program of Northern California and participated in a survey between 1978 and 1985. Of those, 5,367 (25.4%) were diagnosed with dementia over the 23-year follow-up period.
Rachel A. Whitmer, Ph.D., an investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research stated:
“We found a two-fold increase in risk among those who smoked two packs per day, a 44 percent increase in those who smoked one to two packs, and 37% increase in those smoking one-half a pack per day in mid-life. We’ve probably underestimated the real risk, and we don’t know how many of these people quit smoking between the time of the initial survey and being diagnosed with dementia. People need to understand that these are long-term consequences from mid-life smoking.”
According to Whitmer, smoking might increase the risk of dementia by narrowing blood vessels in the brain, which leads to increased stroke risk. But even those people who did not have a stroke were at higher risk for dementia.
John C. Morris, M.D., Friedman Distinguished Professor of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, MO adds however:
“We do not know whether it was the heavy smoking in mid-life that caused the later development of dementia. People who smoke heavily may have other attributes, such as socioeconomic background, nutritional preferences, or other factors that end up being the real culprit.”
Written by Sy Kraft, B.A.