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Smoking accelerates brain ageing

Published on 18 November 2015 12:01 AM

Smoking accelerates brain ageing

But giving up could help repair and recover damage to the brain, recent research suggests

Giving up smoking - even in later life - could help reverse the harmful effects it has on the brain, according to recent research from the Disconnected Mind study at University of Edinburgh, funded by Age UK.

In the latest, largest study of its kind1, scientists have found that smoking appears to accelerate the thinning of the outer layer of the brain (cortex), seen in normal brain ageing. This can jeopardise important thinking skills such as planning, decision-making and problem-solving.

The good news is those participants in the study who had given up smoking appeared to have a thicker cortex than more recent quitters, suggesting some degree of recovery2. However the authors are keen to underline that more research is needed to confirm these results with larger numbers of current smokers, studied over long periods of time

The study's authors suggest that avoiding smoking helps maintain the normal thickness of the cortex, protecting against age-related cognitive decline. The research adds yet more weight to existing evidence showing a strong connection between smoking, brain decline and an increased risk of dementia.

Age UK is highlighting the research ahead of its annual Later Life Conference on Wednesday 18 November, which will focus on brain ageing and dementia. It will showcase exciting and innovative new approaches in the prevention and treatment of age-related cognitive impairment, joined by some of the leading thinkers, policy makers and service providers working in the field3.

To reflect Age UK's increasing focus on protecting and improving brain health, the Charity, in partnership with AARP - the leading US not-for-profit organisation for people aged 50+ - has recently convened the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). This is an independent collaborative of scientists, doctors, scholars and policy experts who will be developing and communicating trusted information on the actions people can take to support their brain health. It will examine key priority issue areas to improve brain health such as physical exercise, mental engagement, stress levels, and medications and supplements4.

Professor James Goodwin, Head of Research at Age UK, said: "We all know smoking is bad for our lungs and heart, but it's important we also understand just how bad it is for our brain. This study shows how smoking speeds up the decline of the important thinking skills we rely on - in a sense accelerating brain ageing - in addition to increasing the risk of dementia and many other illnesses.

"While avoiding smoking is the best way to reduce the risk of brain decline, dementia and other cognitive diseases, this study gives new hope that quitting smoking, even in mid-life, can bring important benefits to the brain, as well as the rest of the body.

"With research suggesting that older people's fear of developing dementia outweighs that of cancer, it is important we inform people about the simple steps they can take to safeguard against this horrible and distressing disease. Brain decline is not an inevitable part of ageing, it is something we can protect ourselves against by making changes to our lifestyle - with avoiding smoking being one of them."

Professor Ian Deary, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, who led the research project, said: "It is important to know what is associated with brain health in older age and our study shows that the rate of smoking-related thinning to the brain is approximately twice the rate observed in previous, smaller studies. However, at the same time, our study also suggests that stopping smoking might allow the brain's cortex to recover some of its thickness, though we need to conduct further studies to test this."


Contact: Vicky Smith

Telephone: 020 3033 1438

Out of hours: 07071 243 243

Notes to editors

The study on smoking and the cortex has been published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry and was carried out with the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University as part of a larger project called The Disconnected Mind that is funded by Age UK at the University of Edinburgh. Additional support was received from the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

1. The study gathered health data and analysed MRI scans of 244 males and 260 females with an average age of 73. These men and women are part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, a group of individuals who were born in 1936 and took part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947. The cohort is central to The Disconnected Mind project, which is a world-leading research project on how and why thinking skills change with age. Previous studies that looked at associations between smoking and cortical thickness has a sample size of 118.

2. Around half individuals studied were former or current smokers and the other half were people who had avoided smoking. Researchers used their brain scans, careful image analysis and statistical models to analyse how smoking habits were linked with the thickness of the brain's cortex

3. For more information about Age UK's Later Life Conference go to

4. For more information about

Age UK

We work with our national partners, Age Scotland, Age Cymru and Age NI and our local Age UK partners in England (together the Age UK Family). We also work internationally for people in later life as a member of the DEC and with our sister charity Help Age International.

Age UK believes that everyone should have the opportunity to make the most of later life, whatever their circumstances. We provide free information, advice and support to over six million people; commercial products and services to over one million customers; and research and campaign on the issues that matter to people in later life. Our work focuses on five key areas: money matters, health and well-being, home and care, work and training and leisure and lifestyle.

Age UK is a charitable company limited by guarantee and registered in England (registered charity number 1128267 and company number 6825798). Age Concern England and Help the Aged (both registered charities), and their trading and other associated companies merged on the 1st April 2009. Together they have formed the Age UK Group ("we"). Charitable services are offered through Age UK and commercial products are offered by the Charity's trading companies, which donate their net profits to Age UK (the Charity).

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Last updated: Oct 06 2017

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