One in ten cigarette smokers in their forties suffers from cognitive decline

Smoking cigarettes can cause a person in their 40s to experience cognitive decline, a study finds.

A study by a team from Ohio State University (OSU) of 136,018 participants over the age of 45 found that 10 percent of middle-aged or older smokers suffered from memory loss and confusion. Overall, smokers were twice as likely to have brain problems as their peers.

Breaking the bad habit can stop the decline. Ex-smokers who stopped smoking more than 10 years ago had a 50 percent increased risk of brain problems – half that of current smokers.

Cognitive problems are rare in middle-aged people because, in most cases, the brain does not lose function until after the age of 65. However, smoking has been linked to many significant health problems later in life, including Alzheimer’s and cancer, among others. Women are also more likely to suffer from cognitive decline than men.

Researchers found smoking can cause people to experience cognitive decline as early as the age of 45 (file photo)

Researchers found smoking can cause people to experience cognitive decline as early as the age of 45 (file photo)

Researchers found smoking can cause people to experience cognitive decline as early as the age of 45 (file photo)

Smoking has long been associated with an increased risk of developing cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s, but the occurrence of these problems in middle-aged people is rare.

For their study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers asked a sample of nearly 140,000 people about their smoking habits and whether they felt they had memory loss during this time.

They found that eight percent of people who had never smoked in their lives experienced cognitive decline.

Meanwhile, 16 percent of current smokers reported suffering from brain problems and memory loss.

Many of these smokers were of an age that was considered too young to deal with these problems.

Just under 10 percent of participants aged 45 to 49 in the survey reported brain problems – although the researchers found that almost all of them were smokers.

The rate of reported cognitive problems was similar among survey participants in their 50s.

However, the differences in cognitive decline between smokers and non-smokers had largely narrowed in older age, as many people develop diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia for various reasons by this time.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disease in which the buildup of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that transmit messages and causes the brain to shrink.

More than 5 million people have the disease in the US, where it is the sixth leading cause of death, and more than 1 million Britons have it.


When brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost.

These include memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason.

The course of the disease is slow and insidious.

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some can live 10 to 15 years.


  • loss of short-term memory
  • disorientation
  • behavior changes
  • mood swings
  • Difficulty handling money or using the phone


  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Anxious and frustrated with inability to understand the world, leading to aggressive behavior
  • Eventually lose the ability to walk
  • May have trouble eating
  • The majority will eventually require 24-hour care

Source: Alzheimer’s Association

“The association we saw was most significant in the 45-59 age group, suggesting that quitting at this stage of life may have a cognitive health benefit,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wing, senior author of the study and professor of epidemiology at OSU.

However, quitting smoking can reverse some of the damage. About 12 percent of survey participants who quit more than a decade ago reported cognitive problems.

This is still a 50 percent increase over the baseline non-smokers, a significant decrease compared to non-smokers.

People who quit within the last 10 years had a 13 percent risk of developing the disease, slightly higher than long-time smokers.

“These results may suggest that time since smoking cessation plays a role and may be associated with cognitive outcomes,” said Jenna Rajczyk, a graduate student at OSU who led the research.

“This is a simple assessment that could easily be routinely performed, and at younger ages than we would normally begin to see cognitive decline, escalating to the level of a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia,” she continued.

“It’s not an intense battery of questions. It’s more of a personal reflection on your cognitive status to see if you feel like you’re not as sharp as you used to be.

The study only took self-reported examples of cognitive problems and did not collect data on the clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Signs of the devastating condition often show up decades before the patient is able to receive a diagnosis, and it is rare for a middle-aged person to be told by a doctor that they have the disease.

Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia in the US. It affects around 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older.

The number of Americans suffering from the disease is expected to double over the next 20 years as longer lifespans lead to more cases over time.

There is no known cure for the condition, and treatments to slow the progression of the disease are scarce.

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