Cigarettes damage your brain... and smokers have double the risk of stroke death

Charlie Cooper reports on a new, hard-hitting, anti-smoking TV campaign

Smokers double the risk of dying from a stroke, researchers have found. The warning comes as public health authorities begin a new campaign highlighting the harms of smoking to the brain.

A new television commercial, which will air for the first time tomorrow, will "bring to life the toxic cycle of dirty blood" caused by inhaling cigarette smoke. While the harms of smoking to the heart and lungs are increasingly well known and understood, health officials will draw attention to the way chemicals such as arsenic and cyanide can damage cells in the brain – increasing the risk of stroke, but also of cognitive decline and dementia.

England's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, said that she was "extremely worried" that people were still underestimating the health risks of smoking, despite it being the single biggest cause of premature deaths, with one in two smokers dying early because of diseases related to their habit.

The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and carried out by experts at the American Cancer Society and Harvard School of Medicine, looked at 50-year trends in mortality in the US, and also found significant increases in mortality rates from smoking-related diseases among women.

More than 10 million British adults smoke – around 22 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women.

A second study, carried out at University College London (UCL), has shown that cognitive decline in men can be nearly 38 per cent faster among persistent smokers. Dr Gareth Hagger-Johnson, research associate at UCL, said that "all smokers should consider quitting to help protect their brain from serious long-term harm".

The new advertisement shows a smoker inhaling, before following the route of harmful chemicals into his lungs, out into his bloodstream via his heart, and then up into the brain.

"We know about the serious effect smoking has on the heart and lungs but smokers need to be aware of how much potential damage is being done to the brain and other vital organs through toxins in cigarettes entering the blood," said Dame Sally.

"However, it is not all doom and gloom for smokers looking to quit this New Year. Within five years of stopping smoking, your risk can be reduced to the same as a lifetime non-smoker."

There are around 152,000 strokes in the UK every year – one every five minutes. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, causing brain cells to be damaged or die. It is the third-biggest cause of death and the brain damage suffered by many survivors also makes it the most common cause of disability.

Joe Korner, of the Stroke Association, said: "The more you smoke, the more your risk increases … Stopping smoking is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke."

Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing for Public Health England, said: "Highlighting the unseen damaging effect smoking has on the body's major organs provides a real motivation for people to stop."

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