Smoking linked to cognitive decline among older adults

New study suggests smoking may be a significant lifestyle factor affecting the rate of cognitive decline as we age.

The researchers aimed to understand how different health-related behaviors impact cognitive decline in older adults who were initially cognitively healthy.

The researchers aimed to understand how different health-related behaviors impact cognitive decline in older adults who were initially cognitively healthy. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

A new study led by UCL researchers suggests smoking may be a significant lifestyle factor affecting the rate of cognitive decline as we age. Published in Nature Communications, the study analyzed data from 32,000 adults aged 50 and over across 14 European countries, collected over a span of 10 years.

The researchers aimed to understand how different health-related behaviors impact cognitive decline in older adults who were initially cognitively healthy. They focused on smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and social interactions.

Cognitive function was measured through memory and verbal fluency tests. Participants were categorized based on their smoking status, engagement in both moderate and vigorous physical activity at least once per week, frequency of social interactions with friends and family, and alcohol consumption—specifically, whether men drank more or less than two alcoholic drinks per day, and women, one drink per day.

The study found that cognitive decline was notably faster among those who smoked compared to non-smokers. In fact, cognitive scores of smokers declined up to 85% more over a decade than those of non-smokers. However, smokers who maintained healthy behaviors in other areas—such as regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, and frequent social interactions—experienced a rate of cognitive decline similar to non-smokers.

Difference in fluency decline over 10 years between the recommendation compliant lifestyle and other lifestyles. (CREDIT: Nature Communications)

Lead author Dr. Mikaela Bloomberg from UCL Behavioural Science & Health commented, “Our study is observational and cannot definitively establish cause and effect, but it suggests smoking might be a particularly important factor influencing the rate of cognitive aging. Previous evidence suggests individuals who engage in more healthy behaviors have slower cognitive decline; however, it was unclear whether all behaviors contributed equally to cognitive decline, or if there were specific behaviors driving these results. Our findings suggest that among the healthy behaviors we examined, not smoking may be among the most important in terms of maintaining cognitive function.”

Dr. Bloomberg further noted, “For people who aren’t able to stop smoking, our results suggest that engaging in other healthy behaviors such as regular exercise, moderate alcohol consumption, and being socially active may help offset adverse cognitive effects associated with smoking.”

The researchers accounted for various factors that could influence their findings, including age, gender, country, education, wealth, and chronic conditions. Data for this study were sourced from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). ELSA is funded by the National Institute on Aging and UK Government departments, coordinated by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR). SHARE receives funding from the European Union. The study authors also received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

This research highlights the critical role of smoking in cognitive decline and underscores the benefits of maintaining other healthy lifestyle behaviors to potentially mitigate the cognitive risks associated with smoking.

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Joshua Shavit
Joshua ShavitScience and Good News Writer
Joshua Shavit is a bright and enthusiastic 17-year-old student with a passion for sharing positive stories that uplift and inspire. With a flair for writing and a deep appreciation for the beauty of human kindness, Joshua has embarked on a journey to spotlight the good news that happens around the world daily. His youthful perspective and genuine interest in spreading positivity make him a promising writer and co-founder at The Brighter Side of News.