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This article is from the WebMD News Archive

Smoking and high blood pressure linked to brain decline

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

26th November 2012 – UK researchers have identified several cardiovascular risk factors, including smoking and high blood pressure, which may be associated with the accelerated decline of memory, learning, attention and reasoning in older adults.

The study included experts at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust & King’s College London and Tommy’s.

Published in the journal Age and Ageing, the study of more than 8,000 adults found that people over the age of 50 who smoked, had high blood pressure or were most at risk of suffering a stroke, performed more poorly on a range of cognitive tasks designed to test memory recall, verbal fluency, attention and other cognitive outcomes.

In an e-mailed comment the Alzheimer's Society says: "We all know smoking, a high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and a high BMI ( Body Mass Index) is bad for our heart. This research adds to the huge amount of evidence that also suggests they can be bad for our head too.

"One in three people over 65 will develop dementia but there are things people can do to reduce their risk. Eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked and not smoking can all make a difference."


The study is one of the few to explore cognitive decline over a long period of time in older adults.

Using information from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), the researchers analysed data on smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and Body Mass Index (BMI), as well as the probability of people developing heart disease or stroke within the next ten years.

At four and eight-year follow-ups, participants undertook two measures of cognitive performance, including memory and executive functioning (assessed by verbal fluency, attention, mental speed and visual scanning abilities) which were then combined into a third, overall 'cognitive index' score. The memory task involved learning 10 unrelated words and for the assessment of executive functioning, participants were asked to name as many animals as possible in one minute. They were also assessed for attention, mental speed and visual scanning abilities.

Valuable knowledge

The study showed that smoking had the most consistent impact, linked with lower cognitive performance after four years.

High BMI was associated with lower performance on the memory task.

High blood pressure was linked with lower scores for memory and overall cognitive performance, and those with a high risk of developing stroke were found to perform more poorly across all the cognitive assessments.

Dr Alex Dregan, Lecturer in Translational Epidemiology and Public Health at King's College London, says in a press release: "Cognitive decline becomes more common with ageing and for an increasing number of people interferes with daily functioning and wellbeing. Some older people can become forgetful, have trouble remembering common words or have problems organising daily tasks more than others.

"We have identified a number of risk factors which could be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, all of which could be modifiable. This offers valuable knowledge for future prevention and treatment interventions."

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