In a new study from Weill Cornell Medicine, researchers found people with higher levels of a nicotine byproduct in their blood scored lower on a test for a wide range of brain functions, regardless of whether they had other health conditions known to affect cognition.
Having high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes – both known to impair cognitive performance – didn’t change the link between greater levels of nicotine byproducts in the blood and lower cognitive test scores.
This suggests smoking independently harms brain function.
In this study, researchers analyzed health data collected between 2011 and 2014 for 3,244 adults enrolled in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
Participants were asked to self-report current smoking status, but how much people smoked also was determined by measuring cotinine, a nicotine byproduct that stays in the blood much longer than nicotine.
High blood pressure was found in 77% of study participants and 24% had Type 2 diabetes.
People in the study, who were an average of 69 years old, were given four cognitive function tests that measured skills such as immediate word recall, delayed word recall, processing speed, attention, and working memory.
The team found no relationship between high levels of cotinine in the blood and test scores for language or fluency.
But people with higher cotinine did score lower on a test that measured multiple types of cognitive function, such as processing speed, attention and working memory.
That link remained the same regardless of whether a person had Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure.
Although the study can’t prove the cause-and-effect between cigarette smoking and cognitive decline, it adds to the body of evidence that smoking can significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including declining brain health.
Researchers suggest effective multi-episode counseling and medical therapies for smoking cessation should be available to all.
Stopping smoking should be an urgent priority for smokers of all ages. It’s never too late to quit.
The study was presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference and was conducted by Dr. Neal Parikh et al.
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