Smokers have been given even more reasons to quit as a recent study has shown puffing away on cigarettes can cause the brain to shrink.
Scientists from Washington University School of Medicine published research looking at the causal relationship between smoking behaviour and global brain volume.
The study, which was published in medRxiv, found there is strong evidence to suggest smoking can reduce the volume of the brain, resulting in cerebral atrophy.
Before this, studies had determined smokers did have smaller brains, but it was not known whether smoking had caused this or those with a lower brain volume were more likely to take up smoking.
However, the scientists looked at brain images from the UK Biobank data and cross-examined these with information on the participants’ smoking habits.
The surveys and images were collected once between 2006 and 2010 and again between 2012 and 2013.
They were then able to compare the size of the brain over time, and use data on their smoking habits to come up with a conclusion.
Consequently, they found: “A history of daily smoking is strongly associated with decreased brain volume, and a history of heavier smoking is associated with a greater decrease in brain volume.”
The study showed people who smoked every day had 0.4 cubic inches smaller brain volumes than those who had never had a daily habit.
According to the findings, each year of smoking one pack a day resulted in an average reduction of grey matter volume of 0.01-cubic-inch. This is where perception, learning, speech, cognition, sensory processing, and voluntary movement is controlled.
It also revealed people who had previously been heavier smokers showed the greatest differentiation in grey matter between the two scans.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has published signs of cerebral atrophy that smokers should look out for.
These include difficulty communicating, memory loss, blurred or double vision, disorientation, loss of coordination, challenges in speaking or understanding language, weakness or loss of sensation, seizures, and dementia.
Symptoms will depend on what part of the brain is particularly affected. For instance, if the cerebrum starts to shrink, this will cause a loss of voluntary processes and conscious thought.
The good news for smokers is the symptoms can be improved simply by quitting smoking. The longer people went without cigarettes, the less the impact of cerebral atrophy.
Therefore, the scientists believe this shows smoking cessation could reverse the reduction in brain volume.
“Number of years since smoking cessation was associated with a minimal increase in volume of grey matter and a decrease in volume of ventricular cerebrospinal fluid,” the report concluded.
As a result, it determined there was “modest evidence of recovery of the brain after smoking cessation”.
There has been a link between smoking and dementia for some time, with 14 per cent of cases being attributable to cigarette use.
However, only 18 per cent of smokers are aware of this, according to a YouGov survey commissioned by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
In fact, smoking is one of the 12 risk factors of dementia, and quitting tobacco could prevent or delay the condition in up to 40 per cent of cases.
Dr Chi Udeh-Momah, a neuroscience and dementia prevention expert based at Imperial College London, said: “If you smoke, quitting is perhaps the most important step you can take to protect both your heart and your brain.”
He added: “It really can be life-changing.”
The doctor recognised that while many people know smoking leads to lung cancer, high blood pressure and strokes, very few are aware of its link with ageing the brain and increasing the risk of dementia.
This is because it damages the heart and blood vessels, which can lead to cerebrovascular disease, strokes, cognitive impairment, depriving brain cells of oxygen, and the death of nerves.
As tobacco increases the chance of developing dementia, this risk can be lowered by quitting.
Most people think the damage has already been done if they are regular smokers, which is why just a third realise they can improve their long-term cognitive health by giving up cigarettes.
Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, reminded smokers: “Quitting smoking at any point can help reduce your dementia risk.”
The charity worked alongside ASH to encourage people to give up their habit for No Smoking Day in March.
Alzheimer’s Society noted: “The evidence is that stopping smoking reduces your risk of dementia.”
It also stated that smoking e-cigarettes instead could be significantly less damaging to cognitive health.
Therefore, whether smokers stop smoking or swap it to liquid vapes, they will be able to reduce their risk of developing dementia.
In fact, a recent study from the University of Michigan has confirmed vaping is an effective aid to help people quit smoking for good.
Kenneth E Warner, professor emeritus of Department of Health Management and Policy at the School of Public Health at the university, was reported by Manila Times as saying: “For adults who want to quit smoking, e-cigarettes serve as an important less-hazardous alternative to continued smoking.”
The study found vaping to be more effective than other smoking cessation tools on the market and, therefore, they should be promoted by support groups, healthcare professionals, and governments.
Dr Warner added: “US, Canada and Australia should give greater consideration to the potential of e-cigarettes for smoking cessation.”
As they have shown to help smokers ditch cigarettes for good, they have succeeded in reducing health-related risks linked with tobacco better than alternative nicotine products, tobacco control policies, and tobacco harm reduction policies.
Among the stop smoking services Brits can access through the NHS are treatments like bupropion and nicotine replacement therapy, as well as one-to-one or group stop smoking sessions.
The health service, which offers weekly sessions for the first month after initially quitting, adds that while vapes are not prescribed on the NHS, “there’s evidence that e-cigarettes can help people stop smoking”.
Therefore, those who want to reverse the signs of brain shrinking or reduce their risk of developing dementia should consider swapping to vapes as soon as possible.