Poor Cardiovascular Health Impairs Learning & Memory


Researchers at the Translational Genomics (TGen) Research Institute have carried out the largest study to date on the associations between smoking and cardiovascular disease on cognitive function.

It has long been known that certain heart diseases increase the risk of dementia, such as diabetes and elevated blood pressure. Hence, it is not surprising that there is a type of dementia known as vascular dementia.

In vascular dementia, changes in cognition can occur suddenly following a stroke. Any condition that damages blood vessels in the body can cause brain changes linked to vascular dementia. Therefore, risk factors include advancing age, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor diet, lack of exercise, alcohol consumption, and more. Currently, there are no treatments for vascular dementia. However, management involves trying to prevent the worsening of symptoms (for example, by treating hypertension) and adapting as efficiently as possible to new cognitive changes.

Learn about vascular dementia. Source: British Heart Foundation.

Previous studies have tried to quantify cognitive function among smokers and test whether sex differences arise, but very mixed results were found. Hence, TGen have compiled and analysed data from 70,000 individuals worldwide to try and tackle these conflicting results. Via this huge sample, the researchers have found definitive trends.

Not only have they clearly proven that smoking and cardiovascular disease impact verbal learning through adulthood, but they have also found that these changes start as early as age 18! More specifically, the researchers have found that smoking and cardiovascular disease impair the ability to learn and memorise information.

They have also found that the effects of smoking are more pronounced in women, and the effects of cardiovascular disease are more pronounced in men. The reasons for these sex-modification effects are still unclear. These findings have highlighted that research into cognitive changes should start in young adults, and biological sex differences should also be considered.

This study has contributed some of the strongest evidence that smoking and cardiovascular disease exacerbate vascular dementia. Dr Brian Tiep, City of Hope director of pulmonary rehabilitation and smoking cessation, commented that:

“The impact on mental acuity seems progressive over time — some more rapid than others. Living habits related to diet, exercise and smoking certainly are consequential and may differ between men and women… This study supports the importance of maintaining cardiovascular health and quitting smoking…

Source: The Lancet Commission 2020.


The study: Lewis, C.R., Talboom, J.S., De Both, M.D. et al. Smoking is associated with impaired verbal learning and memory performance in women more than men. Sci Rep 11, 10248 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-88923-z

Featured image: Pexels, photograph by Cottonbro.

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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