A new anti-smoking campaign launched in the closing days of 2013 by Public Health England (PHE) includes TV adverts that show in graphic detail the harmful effects of smoking on the brain, heart and lungs.
The new Smokefree Health Harms campaign highlights how inhaling cigarette smoke generates a “toxic cycle of dirty blood” that carries harmful chemicals like arsenic and cyanide around the body, causing damage to major organs.
The dirty blood moves through the lungs and the heart, finally ending up in the brain, causing damage to brain cells.
While all organs are affected, the brain is particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these chemicals, leading to a faster decline in mental capacity and raised risk of dementia and stroke, says the campaign.
Smoking can narrow the arteries, which in turn raises risk of blood clots that lead to stroke, and recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that smokers are twice as likely to die of a stroke, compared with non-smokers.
The new campaign also cites research that shows how smokers experience poorer memory and a greater decline in reasoning in later life.
For example, Medical News Today reported on a study in 2012 that found smoking speeds up cognitive decline in men, and another published in PLOS ONE earlier this year finds it has the same effect in women.
Dr. Gareth Hagger-Johnson, research associate at University College London (UCL), conducted one of the studies into the effects of smoking on cognitive function and says:
“Accelerated decline in cognitive reasoning and memory is more advanced in smokers, with one of our studies at UCL showing it to be nearly 38% faster in persistent male smokers compared to non-smokers.”
He explains that while there may be a natural tendency for the brain’s cognitive powers to decline with age anyway, they have found a number of risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol consumption, are linked to accelerated decline. He adds:
“Healthy behaviours in midlife may help preserve cognitive function into early old age, but all smokers should consider quitting to help protect their brain from serious long-term harm.”
When smoking is combined with other damaging lifestyle factors such as heavy drinking, lack of exercise and poor diet, and also with high blood pressure, the risks of cardiovascular diseases, dementia, diabetes and cancer go up even further.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England, says:
“We know about the serious effect smoking has on the heart and lungs but smokers need to be aware of how much potential damage is being done to the brain and other vital organs through toxins in cigarettes entering the blood.”
She adds that as half of smokers die early from diseases linked to smoking, it is “extremely worrying that people still underestimate the health harms associated with it.”
However, she says it is “not all gloom and doom,” and urges smokers to give up smoking as a New Year’s resolution – it is well worth it because:
“Within 5 years of stopping smoking, your risk of stroke can be reduced to the same as a lifetime non-smoker.”