What Smoking Does to Your Brain
Before you light up that next cigarette, you'll want to know about a new study conducted by researchers in the BBC that reveals smoking can cause long-term brain damage.
The scientists identified a significant decline in brain function, including memory, learning, and reasoning among smokers over the age of 50 when compared with their counterparts. Their findings were published in the journal Age and Aging. Although some decline in these areas can be expected as you age, the problems seem to accelerate in people who smoke, making the negative effects of smoking on the brain a more essential health reason, among a list of many, to kick the bad habit for good.
Day-to-Day Impact of Smoking and the Brain
If you've ever tried to quit smoking, you know it's not easy. Part of the challenge of quitting may stem from shorter-term changes in the brain that are caused by chronic exposure to nicotine, says Paul M. Cinciripini, PhD, Annie Laurie Howard Research distinguished professor, director of the Tobacco Treatment Program and deputy chair of the Department of Behavioral Science of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
While the process of exactly how nicotine affects the brain on a day-to-day basis is complicated, one of the outcomes is that it activates the "reward center" in the brain and causes it to release a chemical called dopamine that's associated with pleasure and something significant happening in our environment. Over time this pleasurable reaction becomes associated with cigarettes and when environmental stimuli are presented later, the brain interprets it as a call to smoke. This means that the reward center can become activated by these outside factors, eliciting a craving to smoke and because smoking also affects the brain's ability to make decisions, a smoker trying to quit may have difficulty resisting the urge to smoke.
"Over time, the salience of cigarette cues increases such that they acquire significance, similar to normal emotional cues in our environment," Cinciripini says. For example, if you show a non-smoker a billboard advertising cigarettes, they should have a neutral reaction. But for a smoker, their brain may respond as it would to other highly pleasurable interactions. This altered perception can make it extremely challenging for some smokers to quit, since their ability to say "no" is greatly diminished.
He also says that these altered reactions to environmental cues may continue long after the smoker has stopped smoking. More research needs to be done to understand when the reaction may fade. But Cinciripini says the strength of the reaction may be helpful enough to identify smokers who could have a more challenging time quitting and may need more aggressive interventions to help them be successful.
Why Brain Changes Make It Hard to Quit Smoking
What this all means for smokers is that their brain functioning is working against them when they try to quit. Cinciripini points out that this doesn't mean that you can't be successful, though, but it does make it essential to take advantage of the many smoking cessation resources that exist to support you through your efforts.
"Our research shouldn't discourage smokers from quitting but rather, offers them a little bit of insight into why it's so hard to stop smoking," Cinciripini says. "They should be encouraged because we understand that it can take multiple tries to quit-not because they are a weak person with no willpower, or because there is something wrong with their character, but because their brain has been changed by the effects of nicotine."
He points out that it's important to find ways to remediate these changes, often taking advantage of available help to stop smoking, such as medication and counseling. Also remember that if you don't quit, you could be jeopardizing your long-term cognitive function, as the BBC study reveals.
Help to Stop Smoking
The good news is that once you make the decision to quit, there are lots of different resources to help your efforts. Cinciripini recommends talking to your physician for some guidance and exploring some of the following tips to stop smoking along the way:
- Quitlines (1-800-Quit to find a quitline in your state)
- Over-the-counter replacement products (patches, gum, lozenges)
- Support groups (in person and online)
- Motivational tools
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
- American Lung Association
- American Heart Association
"The main problem is that people often don't use smoke cessation products long enough," Cinciripini says. "They use them and they fail and get discouraged so they stop when they really need them most. They need to keep using them until they are successful."
Paul M. Cinciripini, PhD, reviewed this article.
American Heart Association. "Why Quit Smoking?" N.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.
American Lung Association. "Keeping Your New Years Resolution to Stop Smoking." 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012.
Cinciripini, Paul M. Ph.D., Annie Laurie Howard Research Distinguished Professor, Director of the Tobacco Treatment Program and Deputy Chair of the Department of Behavioral Science of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Phone interview 13 Dec. 2012.
Dregan, Alex, Stewart, Robert, Gulliford, Martin. "Cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline in adults aged 50 and over: a population-based cohort study." Age and Ageing. Published online 25 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.
Versace, Francesco et al. "Beyond cue reactivity: blunted brain responses to pleasant stimuli predict long-term smoking abstinence." Addiction Biology 17 (6) (Nov. 2012):991-1000. Web. 18 Dec. 2012.
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