We sometimes think that it’s hard to prevent dementia and that the focus should be on giving the best care after diagnosis.
But there is a risk factor that can be avoided – smoking.
There’s a growing body of evidence about the link between dementia and both tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke.
Research indicates smokers are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Smoking has an impact on blood flow to the heart and brain. It increases the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke which are, in turn, underlying risk factors for dementia.
Tobacco use may hasten both the onset and the severity of Alzheimer’s, and the risk of developing dementia may be up to 70% higher in current heavy smokers than in non-smokers.
So what are the best tips for those with dementia and their carers?
• It’s vital that people get to know about the links between tobacco and dementia, so spread the message among those who have a diagnosis of dementia, their families and their carers that not smoking is an important part of staying well with dementia for as long as possible;
• The sooner someone quits the better, but it’s never too late and it will have immediate health benefits;
• If you care for someone with dementia, take their views into consideration. If they want to continue to smoke, support them to do so in safety – 45% of fatal house fires in Scotland are caused by matches and smokers’ materials;
• Stopping the supply of cigarettes to someone could result in serious withdrawal symptoms, unless treated, and perhaps interfere with medication. So, when attempting to give up smoking or helping someone to do so, it’s best to get professional advice and support, as this increases the chance of success;
• If you’re a smoker and care for someone with dementia, remember exposure to second-hand smoke is harmful to them, even more so if they have underlying health conditions. Carers and family members can consider quitting, with professional help, perhaps including the use of nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum and patches;
• If you can’t quit at the moment, are you able to go right outside into the open air to smoke? That’s the only way to ensure harmful second-hand smoke isn’t drifting and lingering invisibly indoors;
• If you can’t leave the person you are caring for to go and smoke outside, can someone else look after them for a short time while you are outdoors? If the person you care for is well enough to get out and about, can you limit your tobacco use to when you are outside with them?
We believe that, alongside improved awareness of the links between smoking and dementia, there is a need to develop preventive strategies similar to those already in place for cancer and heart disease.
Information about the benefits of giving up smoking and the health risks of exposure to second-hand smoke should be incorporated into guidelines for the management of dementia and raised with people who have a diagnosis of dementia, their families and their carers at every suitable opportunity.
There should also be an increase in the number of healthcare professionals trained to deliver smoking cessation for people with dementia and those who care for them, and research into how best to support their quit attempts. Dedicated specialist cessation support should be made available within the hospital/acute setting and integrated with community-based stop-smoking services.