Depression and Brain Damage: 2 more reasons not to smoke

by Barry Bittman, MD

If you're down and out and about to light up because you're convinced smoking makes you feel better, think again.

Two new research studies have shown remarkable findings—nicotine not only has a depressive effect on the central nervous system, it also causes degeneration in a brain region that affects emotional control, sexual arousal, sleep and seizures.

If you're a smoker, I know what you're thinking. So hold back those 4-letter words for a moment and consider the following:

A breakthrough study reported in the October 2000 issue of the medical journal, Pediatrics, recently disclosed the true relationship between smoking and depression. A study from over 8,000 teens evaluated at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati, Ohio has shed new light on the chicken/egg argument that depression leads to smoking or visa versa.

Of great importance is the fact that symptoms of depression in these teens did not lead to smoking as you might have guessed. Instead the tides turned as the research team led by Dr. Elizabeth Goodman showed that only 4.8% of nonsmoking teens developed depression after a study period of one year. In contrast, an astounding 12% of smoking teens developed depression in the same time period.

When asked why they began smoking, the surveyed teens offered reasons such as poor grades or friends' use of tobacco.

If taken a step further, this data heralds severe mental health consequences for our nation. As stated in prior columns, the ACS (American Cancer Society) has projected that approximately 3,000 adolescents (not teens) begin smoking each day in our nation. Of these, the ACS contends that 1,000 will die of smoking-related health problems. Now add the consideration that 12% are likely to develop depression as well, and we can now estimate roughly 131,000 new cases of depression arising from just new adolescent smokers each year.

Realize the gravity of this situation by understanding I'm just considering adolescents in my analysis. Recent data also suggests 4,800 teens in our nation begin smoking each day.

And if the prospect of depression isn't enough to get you to kick the habit or prevent it in the first place, it's likely there's far more at stake—your brain!

According to neuroscientist Gaylord Ellison of UCLA, "Nicotine causes the most selective degeneration to the brain I have ever seen." Ellison and colleagues recently reported their findings in the November 2000 issue of Neuropharmacology. They showed that nicotine damages specific nerve cells in an area of the brain called the fasciculus retroflexus, a region particularly affected by chronic drug use. Ellison's team also reported that nicotine specifically affects only one side of this region. The other side has been found to be selectively damaged by amphetamines, cocaine, Ecstasy and other addictive drugs.

Taken together the results of these two studies should be enough to eradicate tobacco use as perhaps the greatest lifestyle threat to the health for our nation. Yet the threat isn't being taken seriously especially by our children who are in the contemplation stage. For them, the "I'll just try it" attitude is more dangerous than ever imagined.

An astounding study published in the September 2000 issue of the British Medical Association journal, Tobacco Control, clearly reveals that full blown tobacco addiction can occur in just a few weeks.

According to study's author Dr. Joseph DiFranza of the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, "We were surprised to find that the children were experiencing the same symptoms of nicotine addiction as adults who smoked heavily—even those kids who only smoked a few cigarettes a week."

Referring to teen and adolescent smokers, Dr. DiFranza also stated, "These kids certainly need help with smoking cessation. It seems it's as difficult for an 11-year-old to quit a habit of two to three cigarettes a week as it is for an adult smoker who's smoking a pack a day."

So if you're even considering lighting up, reconsider a lifetime of dreams up in smoke. Imagine facing a life sentence of addiction, ongoing depression and brain cell loss before it's too late. It's time to take this matter seriously while you still have a chance.

America, this is a wake-up call to stop the nonsense!

There isn't one good reason to expose anyone to the more than 4000 chemicals found in tobacco.

I'd like to ask teachers nationwide to advance this crusade by presenting and reviewing this particular column in every classroom. Discuss these findings and know you can inspire healthy lifestyle choices. Even if our collective efforts impact just a small proportion of our youth, imagine the suffering we can prevent by working together—Mind Over Matter!

copyright 1998,1999, 2000 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved
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