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Smoking doubles the risk of mental illness, new study finds

New research from Aarhus University in Denmark has finally linked smoking to an increased prevalence of mental health disorders, a correlation previously assumed. 

By now, I think we’ve all collectively acknowledged how damaging smoking can be for not only ourselves but also those around us. Once a suave character trait romanticised by the golden age of Hollywood, smoking has fast fallen from grace, now a dirty, secret habit reserved for dingy alleyways and pub courtyards. 

Pretty much every detrimental health condition has been linked to the activity, now leaving the list of reasons to light up pretty obsolete.  

And while the damage smoking causes to our physical bodies has been more than well-established, new research is now revealing our mental health could also be at serious risk.

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A classic chicken and egg conundrum

Though previous research demonstrates a higher prevalence of mental illness amongst smokers, some critics have been apprehensive about labelling the vice as a definite cause. 

Given the addictive nature of smoking, and its popularity as a method of stress relief, researchers have previously found it hard to determine whether smoking is indeed a generator of mental illness, or if people with existing conditions are simply more inclined to turn to cigarettes as a coping mechanism. 

But now, the latest research appears to prove that smoking is indeed a cause of mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The groundbreaking study involved the intricate comparison of health and lifestyle data from the UK Biobank. As one of the world’s largest human health databases, researchers had access to genetic data information on over half a million people.

According to Dr Doug Speed, the statistical geneticist at Aarhus University’s Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics, the results of the study are conclusive. 

“The numbers speak for themselves,” says Dr Speed in a statement. “Although it’s not the only cause, smoking increases the risk of being hospitalised with a mental illness by 250 per cent.” 

A major factor contributing to this conclusion was the timing of when participants first recorded taking up their smoking habit. On average, researchers found most smokers began their nicotine addiction at age 17, with data relating to treatment for mental illness not appearing for roughly another decade.  

The findings of the study also uncovered a genetic link between smoking and mental illness. By analysing health data, they concluded particular people may be genetically predisposed to developing a smoking addiction. 

“The people in the dataset who carried the smoking-related genes but did not smoke were less likely to develop mental disorders compared to those who carried the genes and smoked,” Speed says.

“In this study, we demonstrate that it’s probable that the risk of starting to smoke causes the risk of developing mental disorders to increase due to the ‘smoking-related genes.’”

More research is needed 

While solid links have been established between smoking and mental illness, the question of how exactly smoking contributes to many conditions still remains unanswered.

“We still need to find the biological mechanism that causes smoking to induce mental disorders,” explains Speed. 

A popular theory further research hopes to prove is that long-term nicotine use inhibits the absorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, potentially causing anxiety and depression.

Despite further evidence needing to be uncovered to support theories such as this, the latest study reaffirms the notion that smoking causes long-term, irreversible harm to the body. 

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