Honey, I've shrunk my brain, by smoking.

OK, hands up! Which one of you didn’t know that smoking is bad for your health and is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer?

Apart from the remote tribes people such as those living in the Envira region of the Brazilian/Peruvian rainforest, most people are aware of the negative effects cigarettes have on your health.

But did you know about the damaging effect smoking actually has on your brain? And did you know about the damaging effect of smoking on your kids’ brains that are subjected to second hand smoke?

Do I have your attention?

Let’s start with the evidence available which tells us that

• smokers have poorer memories • reduced problem solving skills • and an increased risk of dementia.

In the 10 seconds it takes for the nicotine and other chemicals to reach your brain after the first drag on the cigarette, changes occur in your brain affecting your mood, your well-being and memory. The effects of that cigarette will last for about 20 to 40 minutes in your body.

Thought that smoking makes you more alert? Think again. A US study by the University of Michigan has shown that smokers have a slower and less accurate thinking ability.

Long term smoking damages your memory, your ability to problem solve and reduces your IQ.

Ouch!

Why is it so hard to quit smoking?

In the brain, we have a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that is associated with a number of the body’s functions including learning and memory. It also facilitates other neurotransmitters that are associated with mood, memory and appetite. The nicotine attaches to the acetylcholine receptors in the brain mimicking its actions and promotes dopamine levels. Dopamine is associated with pleasurable feelings. Ever wondered why some people say they enjoy smoking? Could be the raised dopamine levels talking. Plus the elevated dopamine is the partial answer to why it is so hard to stop smoking, as the nicotine addiction wants you to keep those nice dopamine levels up.

If you smoke, you will score lower on memory tests. Period.

Smoking more than a packet a day will lead to increased difficulty remembering names and faces.

And remembering names is one of the most commonly voiced concerns about memory loss.

Smoking more than a packet a day provides you with a regular cocktail of toxins including toluene (also found in paint thinners and solvents and we know what that does for your brain), which can cause confusion and memory loss.

Ladies. Those of you who smoke into middle age and menopause need to be aware that nicotine will lower your blood oestrogen levels and may inhibit the effect oestrogen has on your brain, exacerbating any brain cell effects of the fluctuating oestrogen levels.

Women who smoke will score 20% lower in tests of executive thinking ie reasoning, planning and organising.

So what is the evidence supporting smoking affects memory?

Dr Marcus Richards at University College London did a study on 5362 people born in 1946 and divided them into groups as either smokers, non-smokers and ex smokers.

They were given a list of 15 words for 2 seconds each and were then asked to write sown as many as they could remember, In the second part of the test they were shown a page of letters and they were given one minute to find and remove all of the “P’s” and “W’s”

The results showed the smokers had the lowest scores for memory.

Those who had given up smoking, had a lower level of decline than those who had continued to smoke. So if you do smoke you will still be doing your brain a huge favour by stopping.

The relationship between memory and smoking was most marked in those who smoked 20 a day plus. In other words, the more you smoke the worse the effect on your memory.

Smoking can therefore be seen as accelerating age related memory problems.

Is this surprising? Well, impaired memory is not uncommon in smoking related illnesses including cancer, heart disease, stroke, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

Why smoking has this effect remains unclear but it is thought that it could be because smoking increases a person’s risk of developing high blood pressure (itself a risk factor for dementia). it has also been found that tobacco contains a substance called NNK which can cause neuroinflammation. It is this inflammation that may lead to neurodegenerative disorders.

Or it may be that smoking has an effect on the supply of oxygen on the brain.

Or it could be a direct toxic effect of the multitude of other toxins found in cigarette smoke.

Whatever the underlying reason, it is clear that smoking affects memory and is an increased risk for dementia.

Hint, this is a really good reason to give up the smokes. It would be a really good idea to stop now.

The benefit of stopping is that there is less memory deficit the earlier you quit.

And it’s never too late to stop.

I look forward to hearing your comments. But no excuses about how hard it is to give up smoking. I've heard them all.

If you smoke you have an addiction (as well as a shrinking brain) so it takes a decision, commitment and perseverance to quit.

You can do it.

In Part Two of this blog on smoking Jenny will be covering the worrying evidence of the effects of passive smoking on our kids and the effects on kids brains if they themselves smoke.

Stay tuned.

Ref: American Academy of Neurology (2007, September 6). Smokers Are More Likely To Develop Dementia.