The brain controls every aspect of our lives and the impact of it being damaged in any way can be devastating. We all take steps to protect our brains, such as wearing a cycling helmet or avoiding knocks to the head. But did you know that giving up smoking is also a great way to prevent damaging our precious grey matter? Here’s why smoking is bad for your brain:
The cycle of addiction
Nicotine addiction is so powerful that it causes changes in your brain that will affect your moods, leading to anxiety and irritability. The brain develops extra nicotine receptors to deal with the large doses of nicotine you inhale. As soon as the brain stops being fed with the nicotine, withdrawal symptoms kick in, leading to mood changes. Smokers will then smoke to relieve these symptoms, flooding their brains with nicotine once again. And so the cycle continues…
Long term damage
Researchers have found that smoking does long term damage to the structure of the brain. A study carried out in 2015 and published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal, looked at the brain scans of 500 smokers, non-smokers and former smokers. It found that current and former smokers actually have a thinner cortex, the part of the brain that deals with memory, language and cortex, than non-smokers. The cortex does thin naturally with age, but the researchers found that smoking accelerates that process, leading to mental decline. On a more positive note, however the researchers did find that stopping smoking leads to some restoration of the cortex – albeit a slow one.
According to the Stroke Association, smokers are twice as likely to die if they have a stroke. Smoking greatly increases your risk of having a stroke with those who smoke 20 a day, six times more likely to have a stroke than a non-smoker. There are different reasons for this. One is due to the 7,000 toxic chemicals contained in tobacco smoke which enter your blood stream from your lungs, damaging cells all around your body. Cigarette smoke also affects cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of a stroke.
When you inhale cigarette smoke, you inhale carbon monoxide which reduces the oxygen in your blood and nicotine which makes your heart beat faster and raises your blood pressure. This raises your risk of a stroke.
Smoking also increases the chance of a blot clot forming in your brain, because the chemicals in smoke make the platelet cells in your blood more likely to stick together. A blood clot can block the blood supply leading to your brain.
The good news is that stopping smoking will reduce your risk of a stroke and those who have already had a stroke can reduce their risk of having another one by quitting.
The two most common forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, are both linked to problems with the vascular system – the heart and blood vessels. As a result smoking, which affects the vascular system by restricting the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, increases the risk of developing dementia.
Meanwhile the toxic chemicals present in tobacco smoke can also increase inflammation in the brain which can also lead to the developing of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Some researchers estimate that 14% of dementia cases worldwide are attributable to smoking. According to Bob Woods, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology of Older People at Bangor University, 10% of cases of dementia in the UK may be linked to smoking . He said however, that giving up smoking decreases the risk of developing dementia, in some cases to the same level as a non-smokers.
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