British researchers have found that cigarette smoking does not offer protection against dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

This finding, published in the April 22 issue of the British Medical Journal, contradicts reports from a handful of earlier studies.

Researchers led by eminent epidemiologists Sir Richard Doll and Sir Richard Peto evaluated data from a group of 34,439 male British doctors. The data, which included information on the doctors’ smoking habits, was collected from 1951 through 1998. In this period, 473 cases of dementia were confirmed on death certificates. Cigarette smoking was not found to be associated with a lower risk of dementia.

Dementia is a general term describing the mental deterioration accompanying diseases that affect the brain and are usually associated with aging. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and is marked by a progressive decline in memory and thinking ability, as well as changes in behavior and personality. Symptoms typically appear after age 60. While patients with Alzheimer’s disease can live as long as 20 years with the condition, the duration of the disease is usually 8 to 10 years. It is estimated that 4 million Americans suffer from the disease.

Cigarette smoking increases the risk for numerous diseases, including vascular diseases such as blood clots, heart attack and stroke. For this reason, researchers argue that cigarette smoking might indeed contribute to a type of dementia called vascular dementia.

Some scientists have hypothesized that cigarette smoking might prevent dementia because nicotine, the addictive component of cigarette smoke, affects the same brain chemicals that are impaired in Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies supporting this theory, however, have been criticized for their unreliable and potentially biased study designs.

An editorial accompanying the latest report criticized the lack of media coverage highlighting the shortcomings of these earlier studies.

Brayne commented on the need for more research on the topic. Scientists are hopeful that several studies currently underway will clarify the short- and long-term effects of cigarette smoking on dementia.

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