Heavy Drinking and Smoking Speed Mental Decline
Doctors and researchers refer to a decrease in normal brain function over time as cognitive decline. Aspects of brain function that can diminish in someone going through cognitive decline include the ability to make new memories, the ability to recall previously created memories, the ability to learn or retain any kind of new information, the ability to understand language when spoken to and the ability to use language properly in response to others. The most well known factor in cognitive decline is advancing age, and an accelerated (and ultimately fatal) version of this process occurs in people affected by the form of dementia called Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, a number of other health problems can contribute to an unusually rapid decline in mental function.
Smoking and Brain Function
In an eight-year study published in 2012 in the journal Age and Ageing, a team of British researchers assessed the effects of smoking on the brain function of close to 9,000 adults over the age of 50. At the beginning, middle and end of the study, all of the participants underwent tests that measured their ability to do things like increase their vocabulary or rapidly recall words they already knew. When compared to participants who didn’t smoke, participants who did smoke consistently displayed a gradual decrease in their abilities to perform these fairly basic mental tasks.
Heavy Drinking and Brain Function
Current scientific evidence strongly indicates that people who drink in moderate amounts can actually potentially improve some aspects of their daily brain function. However, the damaging effects of heavy alcohol consumption are just as strongly supported by current research. For example, a 2008 report from the International Center for Alcohol Policies notes that chronic heavy drinking can shrink the size of the brain, produce permanent damage in the brain’s cells, and impair a person’s ability to make or recall memories, use or understand language, or effectively use other everyday cognitive functions. Brain changes in chronic heavy drinkers can also deeply alter longstanding personality traits. Binge drinkers and other people who only occasionally consume excessive amounts of alcohol can also develop similar sorts of brain impairment.
In a study published in May 2013 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, a multi-university research team examined the effects of smoking on the brain function of a group of adults in the early stages of recovery from alcohol dependence (now known as alcohol use disorder). Some of the participating adults were current smokers, while others had previously quit smoking. After reviewing their findings, the authors of the study concluded that, when compared to people without a history of smoking or alcohol use disorder, people with a history of both of these problems experience significant declines in their ability to do such things as learn, use their memories, solve problems and exercise logical reasoning skills. The same degree of impairment appears in both current smokers and former smokers.
Another study, published in July 2013 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, compared the combined brain effects of smoking and heavy drinking to the effects of moderate drinking in people who don’t smoke. These comparisons were made over 10 years in a group of almost 6,500 individuals between the ages of 45 and 69. After reviewing the gathered data, the study’s authors concluded that people who combine smoking with heavy drinking experience a decline in cognitive brain function that’s fully 36 percent faster than the decline associated with moderate alcohol consumption in the absence of smoking. Over a 10-year period, this decline added an extra two years to the brain age of smokers who drank heavily. As a rule, the rate of declining brain function went up in direct correlation with the amount of alcohol regularly consumed.