While it is well known that smoking can cause lung cancer, heart disease and strokes, along with a myriad of other cardiovascular and respitory illnesses, the link between smoking and dementia is not well known. A report prepared by the WHO on the link between tobacco and dementia was released in 2014 that detailed the effects of smoked tobacco products, smokeless tobacco and second hand smoke. The report included details about the pathology of tobacco’s effects on the brain. The WHO report included data from several studies that looked at tobacco use and dementia. In reviewing these studies and collecting the data from them, the WHO estimates that approximately 14% of Alzheimer’s related dementia cases can be attributed to smoking.
Other studies done since the WHO analysis also show links between smoking an dementia. Smoking acts on the brain in a few different ways. Some studies link the thinning of the cerebral cortex to smoking. In a study out of McGill University brain scans of smokers showed that they had significantly thinner brain cortex tissue than non-smokers. Some thinning is normal as humans age, but even corrected for the normal aging process, smokers had accelerated levels of thinning. The good news in that study was that if smokers quit, the brain cortex could recover some of the loss and regain tissue.
Another form of dementia that has been linked to smoking comes from damage it does to the vascular system. Atherosclerosis damages the blood vessels that lead to the brain and that process deprives the brain cells of oxygen and important nutrients. This called vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia and it's caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. While many cases of vascular dementia are caused by strokes and blood clots, smoking has been shown to cause those events, so the connection is strong between smoking and vascular dementia.
The numbers on how widespread dementia is becoming in the United States are staggering. Alzheimer’s Disease is the sixth leading cause of death. It’s also the only cause in the top ten that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed down. The CDC figures show that 1 in 3 seniors will die while struggling with some form of dementia.
Smoking costs are skyrocketing as well. According to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, 55.8 million Americans smoke cigarettes. The costs in healthcare for tobacco related illnesses reached $134 billion in the years between 2000-2012. With the two issues of dementia and illnesses related to smoking being so prevalent, the connection between the two needs to be addressed by public health agencies. In the conclusion of the WHO analysis of smoking studies and dementia the organization wrote, “Governments should actively implement and enforce the measures of the WHO Framework Conventionon Tobacco Control, especially smoke-free environment laws and systematic access to tobacco cessation services.” Check out the video below to learn more.