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How Smoking Kills Brain Cells

By Meg Brannagan ; Updated August 14, 2017

Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the United States. According to 2010 information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking kills over 443,000 people annually; it kills more people each year than car accidents, suicide, murders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and HIV infection combined. Smoking tobacco contributes to brain cell death, causing long-term complications and permanent illness.


Nicotine is a drug in tobacco, which enters the bloodstream and circulates throughout the body during smoking. Nicotine stimulates areas of the brain to release neurotransmitters that influence mood, appetite and feelings of pleasure. People who smoke are used to the response of nicotine in the brain and suffer withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. Withdrawing from smoking causes symptoms of restlessness, shakiness, headaches and hunger.


Smoking increases blood pressure, putting the brain at risk of stroke. A stroke occurs when high blood pressure causes the tiny vessels of the brain to break, causing bleeding. The brain cells that are normally fed by oxygen-rich blood die from lack of oxygen to the area. A stroke can cause permanent neurological damage including paralysis, muscle weakness, difficulty speaking or eating, confusion and lack of coordination.


The risk of developing a brain aneurysm is 8.3 times higher among people who have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. An aneurysm occurs when the wall of a blood vessel becomes weak and bulges with blood. If the vessel ruptures, bleeding occurs in the brain, causing death to brain cells that become oxygen deprived and are compressed under the hemorrhage. The Aneurysm and AVM Foundation facts for 2010 state that approximately 2 million Americans have silent aneurysms, which have no symptoms. Quitting smoking can decrease your risk of developing an aneurysm or its rupture.


According to the website Science Daily, a July 2009 study published in the "Journal of Neurochemistry" indicates that a chemical compound called NNK plays a role in brain cell damage. NNK is found in all forms of tobacco and stimulates the work of microglia cells, which are destroyer cells. NNK causes the microglia to destroy healthy brain tissue instead of the damaging cells. NNK is not only harmful to smokers, but also to those who inhale secondhand smoke and those who chew tobacco.


Smoking obviously causes problems with cardiovascular disease as well as compromises brain function, but quitting smoking is easier said than done. Giving up smoking saves money as well as the health of those around you. Talk to your doctor about what methods are available to help you quit smoking. Some support groups are available, such as Freedom from Smoking Online, which can help keep smokers focused on the goal of giving up cigarettes.

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