Smokers more likely to develop mid-life memory loss and confusion

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The harmful respiratory and cardiovascular consequences of smoking are no secret, but new research finds smokers may also be putting themselves at greater risk of cognitive decline as well. Scientists at The Ohio State University report middle-aged smokers are much more likely to experience memory loss and confusion than nonsmokers.

Luckily, that risk for cognitive decline start to lower when a smoker quits. This project is the first ever to investigate the relationship between smoking and cognitive decline using a simple self-assessment asking people just one question: If they’ve experienced worsening or more frequent memory loss and/or confusion.

While this isn’t the first project to find a relationship between smoking and dementia, it could open up new opportunities to identify signs of cognitive trouble earlier in life.

“The association we saw was most significant in the 45-59 age group, suggesting that quitting at that stage of life may have a benefit for cognitive health,” says senior study author Jeffrey Wing, an assistant professor of epidemiology, in a university release.

Study authors did not see a similar difference in the oldest participants, which suggests quitting earlier leads to greater health benefits.

Cognitive decline twice as likely among smokers

The data used for this study comes from the national 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey. That dataset allowed study authors to compare subjective cognitive decline (SCD) measures among current smokers, recent former smokers, and people who had quit years earlier. In all, the analysis featured 136,018 people 45 or older, with about 11 percent reporting SCD.

Notably, the prevalence of SCD among smokers in the study was nearly 1.9 times that of nonsmokers. The prevalence among those who had quit less than 10 years ago was 1.5 times that of nonsmokers. Meanwhile, people who had quit more than a decade before the survey showed an SCD prevalence just slightly above the nonsmoking group.

“These findings could imply that the time since smoking cessation does matter, and may be linked to cognitive outcomes,” adds Jenna Rajczyk, lead author of the study and a  a PhD student in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

“This is a simple assessment that could be easily done routinely, and at younger ages than we typically start to see cognitive declines that rise to the level of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia,” the researcher explains. “It’s not an intensive battery of questions. It’s more a personal reflection of your cognitive status to determine if you’re feeling like you’re not as sharp as you once were.”

Plenty of people don’t have access to in-depth screenings or health specialists, making the potential applications for measuring SCD even greater.

Study authors stress that it’s important to understand these self-reported experiences do not constitute a diagnosis, nor do they confirm anyone is experiencing abnormal cognitive decline. Still, they can be useful as a low-cost, simple tool capable of broad application.

The study findings appear in the Journal of Alzheimer s Disease.

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