Justin Shearer via Flick

I am about to remind you of something you already know: Cigarette smoking is bad for your health. Indeed, smoking accounts for 20 percent of all deaths annually in the U.S.A.

Everybody knows about smoking’s deleterious effects on the lungs—emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and lung cancer. Many of us are aware of the effects of smoking on the heart—notably, heart disease leading to heart attacks. Certainly those complications are bad enough and should discourage us from smoking.  That said, it is important to realize that cigarettes also have a profound effect on brain health. And it’s not just smokers who should worry about their brain; it’s their loved ones as well, because secondhand smoke is also a major problem.

It is exactly because nicotine gets into the brain so easily and so quickly that cigarette smokers become hooked. Within 10 seconds of one’s inhaling a cigarette, nicotine enters the brain and leads to a release of dopamine and other brain chemicals. This leads to improved mood and concentration, as well as increased attention. All of those effects are short-lived, leading the smoker to crave the next puff, the next cigarette, the next pack of cigarettes, and ultimately the next case of cigarettes. By then, their brains are wired to look for more cigarettes and unwittingly become part of the cash flow of the cigarette companies.

Smoking is bad for the brain in many ways. I will highlight some of the major neurological complications of smoking:

• Stroke.  Smoking doubles or triples the risk of stroke, depending on the number of cigarettes regularly smoked. A very concerning and important fact is that nonsmoking spouses of smokers are at about a double increased risk of stroke.

• Dementia. Smokers have an 80 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Of note is the fact that secondhand smoke may also increase the risk of dementia twofold to threefold!

• Multiple sclerosis Smoking doubles the risk of developing MS, and also speeds the course of MS in patients who carry the diagnosis.

Seizures. One large study following women over 16 years found a doubling of the risk of having a seizure in smokers compared with nonsmokers.

Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). In women, smoking increases the risk of developing this terrible disease by 40 percent to 60 percent.

(It is worth noting that the risk of Parkinson’s disease is actually significantly reduced in lifelong smokers. The mechanism of this is not well understood.)

To summarize: Smoking doubles the risk of some of the most feared neurological disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, MS, seizures, and ALS. I might assume that most of you reading this article are nonsmokers, and find smoking to be an anathema. Ironically, people who actually read articles about health are probably those who need these articles least. However, when it comes to smoking, it is not just you but those around you who can negatively impact your brain health. Don’t let your brain be a victim to smoke— firsthand or secondhand.  Implore your loved ones who are smokers to consider not just their own health, but also the health of everyone they love!

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