From an early age, beautiful women plied me with cigarettes and alcohol. I can still remember their alluring scarlet-painted nails and perfectly tailored close fitting skirts as they reached towards me in a cloud of perfume, with bottles of whiskey and Salem menthol cigarettes in their immaculate hands. To add to the drama, there were clouds of the usual sort scudding past the windows of the battered DC-3 Dakotas and Short Sunderland flying boats I used to take between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and air hostesses in close proximity could not fail to make a sensual impression on a 12 year old boy, sexual urges augmented by the excitation transfer of a bucketing aircraft with uncertain shuddering propellers battling thunderstorms across the River Plate.
By every environmentalist theory I should have been a natural drinker and smoker, with a perfect alibi for my excesses. Instead, I dutifully handed over the miniature bottles and 5 cigarette courtesy packs to my grateful parents. In later years I tried a few cigarettes, but they failed to ensnare me, and so I was never burdened by habits of the chemical sort.
Many other youngsters were not so lucky, and took up the seductive attraction of an illicit pleasure. Sure, it puts you at risk of lung cancer and general ill health, but why should it influence intelligence, when booze and fags are an intellectual’s necessities, or at least have often been touted as such, by intellectuals themselves if not by their doctors?
Some of you may be tired of hearing from the Craigleith sandstone citadel of Edinburgh, but I cannot stop the gang in that place from churning out interesting stuff. They find that smoking thins the brain, even when you allow for prior intelligence and other confounders, and that giving up smoking makes things better, but it takes the brain a long time to recover lost ground. It is a thin cut, but every millimetre counts.
Karama; Ducharme; Corley; Chouinard-Decorte; Starr; Wardlaw; Bastin and Deary (2015) Cigarette smoking and thinning of the brain’s cortex. Molecular Psychiatry advance online publication, 10 February 2015; doi:10.1038/mp.2014.187
They say: Cigarette smoking is associated with cognitive decline and dementia, but the extent of the association between smoking and structural brain changes remains unclear. Importantly, it is unknown whether smoking-related brain changes are reversible after smoking cessation. We analyzed data on 504 subjects with recall of lifetime smoking data and a structural brain magnetic resonance imaging at age 73 years from which measures of cortical thickness were extracted. Multiple regression analyses were performed controlling for gender and exact age at scanning. To determine dose–response relationships, the association between smoking pack-years and cortical thickness was tested and then repeated, while controlling for a comprehensive list of covariates including, among others, cognitive ability before starting smoking. Further, we tested associations between cortical thickness and number of years since last cigarette, while controlling for lifetime smoking. There was a diffuse dose-dependent negative association between smoking and cortical thickness. Some negative dose-dependent cortical associations persisted after
controlling for all covariates. Accounting for total amount of lifetime smoking, the cortex of subjects who stopped smoking seems to have partially recovered for each year without smoking. However, it took ~ 25 years for complete cortical recovery in
affected areas for those at the mean pack-years value in this sample. As the cortex thins with normal aging, our data suggest that smoking is associated with diffuse accelerated cortical thinning, a biomarker of cognitive decline in adults. Although partial recovery appears possible, it can be a long process.
As you may know, I do not show pictures of brains on this blog, because they are apt to convince innocent readers of just about anything, but I urge you to make an exception for those created by Mark Bastin, which I am sending you under plain cover and you will find on pages 4, 5 and 6 of the paper.
However, I can reveal the picture that is worth 1000 words below, showing the full cost of cortical thinning for late quitters and current smokers:
"Smoking," wrote two-pack-a-day Jean Paul Sartre long before dying of lung failure at age 74 is "the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world." Perhaps those old smoke-wreathed intellectuals were dulling their bright minds with their habits, even though they could still turn a phrase which sounded profound. What damages the brain more: smoking or being a French Intellectual?