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Smoking is an important risk factor in brain shrinkage and a decline in brain function in later years, a new study suggests. The study found smoking, along with high blood pressure, diabetes and excess weight, all contributed to potentially dangerous changes in the brain that could lead to a decline in mental functioning as soon as 10 years later. The study appears in the journal Neurology.

HealthDay reports the study included 1,352 people without dementia whose average age was 54. Each person was weighed, measured, given blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes tests and underwent brain MRI scans over 10 years. The researchers found smokers lost brain volume overall and in the hippocampus—the part of the brain which converts short-term memory into long-term memory—at a faster rate than nonsmokers. They were also more likely to have a rapid increase in small areas of damage to the brain’s blood vessels.

Study author Charles DeCarli, M.D., of the University of California at Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center, said in a journal news release, “Our findings provide evidence that identifying these risk factors early in people of middle age could be useful in screening people for at-risk dementia and encouraging people to make changes to their lifestyle before it’s too late.”

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