Tobacco Gender Bias
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By G. S. Mudur
New Delhi, India
Women who have been long-term cigarette smokers may suffer from impaired memory and thinking, but this effect appears absent in male smokers, according to a study released today.
The study by US medical researchers also examined alcohol use and found that neither men nor women with history of moderate alcohol abuse showed loss of mental functions. The findings appeared today in the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs.
Scientists view the findings as surprising. “I expected smoking to show similar effects in men and women,” said Kristin Caspers, a researcher at the department of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and the first author of the study.
“Both the men and women in our study had similar patterns of smoking. But it is possible that (the hormone) oestrogen makes women more sensitive to the effects of nicotine,” Caspers told The Telegraph.
In the past, independent animal experiments have suggested that nicotine lowers the levels of oestrogen in the blood and may therefore obstruct the hormone’s positive effects on brain cells.
A senior Indian neuroscientist, who was not associated with the study, cautioned that the findings relating to alcohol appeared to fly against evidence.
Several earlier studies had shown that even moderate levels of alcohol abuse can lead to mild but significant cognitive deficits, said Vivek Benegal, associate professor at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore.
While nicotine is viewed as enhancing cognition with smokers reporting increased levels of alertness or concentration, Benegal said, no one has investigated the long-term cognitive effects of nicotine.
Caspers and her colleagues documented the alcohol intake and smoking habits of 118 men and 169 women between the ages of 31 and 69 years, and assessed their cognitive abilities through memory and mental function tasks.
Their findings suggest that smoking may have “an enduring effect” on the mental functions of women who are heavy smokers over a long period of time, Caspers said.
“But an acute (immediate) effect of smoking on mental functions could not be entirely ruled out since most of the women who reported smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day were also current smokers,” Caspers said.
Although the study points to nicotine’s selective effect on the mental abilities of women, doctors assert that the findings won’t alter the public health message for either women or men.
Most of the study participants had moderate alcohol abuse problems - defined as when a person had a single symptom of excess drinking, such as drinking and driving or failing to meet work or education tasks.
Caspers herself concedes the findings do not necessarily mean that serious alcohol problems would not affect long-term memory or mental functions. A larger number of study participants could have altered the findings. The findings may not hold for people with a more serious condition called alcohol dependence, marked by features such as withdrawal symptoms.
“These findings are comparative statistics. The reality is that there are other significant physical as well as social costs from smoking and alcohol -for both men and women,” Benegal said. If you don’t get kicked in the brain, you get kicked elsewhere.