Impact of smoking on cognitive decline in early old age: the Whitehall II cohort study

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jun;69(6):627-35. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.2016.


Context: Smoking is a possible risk factor for dementia, although its impact may have been underestimated in elderly populations because of the shorter life span of smokers.

Objective: To examine the association between smoking history and cognitive decline in the transition from midlife to old age.

Design: Cohort study.

Setting: The Whitehall II study. The first cognitive assessment was in 1997 to 1999, repeated over 2002 to 2004 and 2007 to 2009.

Participants: Data are from 5099 men and 2137 women in the Whitehall II study, mean age 56 years (range, 44-69 years) at the first cognitive assessment.

Main outcome measures: The cognitive test battery was composed of tests of memory, vocabulary, executive function (composed of 1 reasoning and 2 fluency tests), and a global cognitive score summarizing performance across all 5 tests. Smoking status was assessed over the entire study period. Linear mixed models were used to assess the association between smoking history and 10-year cognitive decline, expressed as z scores.

Results: In men, 10-year cognitive decline in all tests except vocabulary among never smokers ranged from a quarter to a third of the baseline standard deviation. Faster cognitive decline was observed among current smokers compared with never smokers in men (mean difference in 10-year decline in global cognition=-0.09 [95% CI, -0.15 to -0.03] and executive function=-0.11 [95% CI, -0.17 to -0.05]). Recent ex-smokers had greater decline in executive function (-0.08 [95% CI, -0.14 to -0.02]), while the decline in long-term ex-smokers was similar to that among never smokers. In analyses that additionally took dropout and death into account, these differences were 1.2 to 1.5 times larger. In women, cognitive decline did not vary as a function of smoking status.

Conclusions: Compared with never smokers, middle-aged male smokers experienced faster cognitive decline in global cognition and executive function. In ex-smokers with at least a 10-year cessation, there were no adverse effects on cognitive decline.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Time Factors
  • United Kingdom