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Need Another Reason to Quit Smoking? It May Shrink Your Brain

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It’s no secret: Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. Well, believe it or not, it’s now considered even worse. New research has discovered that in addition to increasing the risk of a plethora of diseases and cancers, smoking may also physically shrink the brain.

If that sounds serious, it is, as brain shrinkage may result in greater risks of Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia, among other conditions.

New Research on Smoking’s Affect on the Brain

We have known for years that smoking can negatively affect the brain. From increasing the risk of strokes suffered as the result of clots or burst blood vessels in the brain to the impact that nicotine can have in changing the chemistry of the brain, the fact that smoking leads to poorer brain health is not new knowledge. However, new research from McGill University in Canada and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland has now found that smoking may actually cause a thinning of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain.

This part of the brain is critical for essential functions, including memory, perception, and language. But as already mentioned, that’s not all. According to the researchers, and existing knowledge on brain function, a thinner cortex has been linked to poor balance, schizophrenia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

In order to come to these determinations, researchers analyzed the brain scans of over 500 smokers, nonsmokers, and former smokers, who had an average age of 73 years. The study, which was the largest of its kind ever performed, was able to make the conclusion that smoking was indeed linked to a thinning of the cortex. Furthermore, even after quitting smoking, negative impacts may remain for years, including general cognitive decline and memory problems.

There is Good News

The good news is that the brain has the ability to at least partially recover over time. In their study, the researchers found that past smokers were able to restore at least some of their cortex, with these restorative abilities seemingly linked to the amount and duration of their smoking habit.

Those who smoked for a shorter period of time, or who smoked less on average, appeared to have better cortex regeneration compared to heavier smokers. However, regardless of the level of an individual’s smoking, quitting is likely to have a positive, restorative effect.

The Best Protection from Smoking-Related Brain Shrinkage? Quit Smoking.

As the lead author of the study, Dr. Sherif Karama, relates, these finding may be powerful enough to convince some people to finally quit smoking. “My mother-in-law had tried to stop smoking for years, and last year when I showed her the results, she stopped the next day,” Dr. Karama said. While that result is ideal and would produce the quickest health improvements, quitting smoking is not that easy for everyone, no matter how badly they may want to quit.

Nevertheless, the results of this study serve as yet another reminder of the health hazards associated with smoking. If you have been trying to quit, are thinking about quitting, or if you know someone who is trying to quit, strongly consider (or share) this study. Perhaps it will be enough to convince some people to search for that extra inner source of determination to get over the hump. Of course, seek out the help of your physician, loved ones, medicinal resources and tools, and other professional resources and support. Quitting smoking may be one of the hardest things to accomplish, but if millions of people have done it before, you can too! Your brain will thank you.


Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.


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