Practicing Moderation to Stay Sharp

Heavy drinking smokers mentally aged faster than moderate drinking nonsmokers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Aging is a fact of life, but you may have some control over how quickly it happens. Turns out heavy drinking and smoking may speed up aging of the mind. 

In a recent study, researchers tested the thinking and memory function of a large group of middle-aged adults over the course of 10 years.

The results of this study showed that adults who smoked and drank heavily mentally aged an additional two years more compared to non-smoking, moderate drinkers.

"Quit smoking and avoid heavy drinking."

Gareth Hagger-Johnson, PhD, of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London in the UK, led this investigation into mental sharpness after long-term smoking and heavy drinking.

Signs of cognitive decline (losing mental sharpness) can include minor trouble with memory, processing information and planning. 

According to the study's authors, mild cognitive trouble ranges somewhere between normal mental function and dementia. And certain unhealthy behaviors, such as heavy drinking and smoking, may speed up cognitive decline.

Previous studies have shown a difference in mental functioning between moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers. Moderate drinking has been defined as up to 14 drinks per week for women and up to 21 drinks per week for men.

For this study, the researchers used data from the ongoing Whitehall II study, which has been following 10,308 British civil servants since 1985.

On three separate occasions, between 1997 and 2009, 6,743 participants from the study were asked about their smoking and drinking habits and given a few mental function tests. These tests were designed to assess memory skills as well as language and math reasoning abilities.

On average, the participants were between 45 and 69 years of age at the time of the first tests, and 72 percent of the participants were male.

The results of this study showed people who were smokers and drank heavily (more than 14 drinks per week for women and more than 21 drinks per week for men) had a 36 percent faster decline in mental function compared to non-smoking, moderate drinkers.

The researchers noted the mental decline in heavy drinking smokers was equal to an additional two years of aging over 10 years compared to non-smoking, moderate drinkers.

The study authors concluded people should quit smoking and avoid heavy alcohol consumption, especially from midlife onwards, as smoking and heavy drinking may speed up cognitive decline.

This study was published in July in BJPsych.

The National Institute on Aging, NHS Leeds Flexibility & Sustainability Fund, the British Heart Foundation, Medical Research Council, the National Institutes of Health, the Academy of Finland, the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Medical Research Council and the Stroke Association provided funding for this project.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 15, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013