Scientists have discovered that certain cardiovascular disease risk factors are associated with rapid aging of the brain. Smoking and high blood pressure can lead to cognitive decline, memory loss and poor attention.

Smoking has already been linked to lung cancer and COPD, but now researchers from King's College London have discovered that smoking can also impair cognitive function. In a study published in the journal Age and Ageing, researchers discovered that cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high body mass index and high cholesterol, can impact your cognitive function later in life.

According to the BBC, smoking can literally “rot your brain” since it leads to accelerated aging of the brain. In the study, researchers evaluated several cardiovascular disease risk factors of 8,000 participants who were enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, or ELSA, in 2004.

The participants were over the age of 50, the median age was just over 66, and researchers wanted to determine the effect of cardiovascular risk factors on the brain using a series of tests, conducted four years and eight years after taking part in the ELSA.

Researchers evaluated smoking, high BMI, cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and the Framingham Risk Score. The Framingham Risk Score was developed as part of the Framingham Heart Study and helps determine the 10-year risk of a heart attack or stroke based on several risk factors including age, gender, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and whether or not you are a smoker.

To test cognitive function, researchers asked participants to take a test that involved learning 10 words and asking them to repeat them immediately and after a short time had passed. Another test involved naming as many animals as possible in a minute, and the third test involved crossing out certain letters in a series. According to researchers, that test was used to evaluate visual scanning ability, mental speed and attention span.

The researchers concluded that smoking led to the worst cognitive decline in participants, stating, “Smoking was consistently associated with lower performance on all three cognitive outcomes.” While smoking led to poorer performance on each test, other risk factors impacted cognitive function in other ways.

High BMI was associated with poorer performance on the test involving learning 10 words that tested memory, and high blood pressure affected scores for the memory test and overall cognitive ability. The participants who had a risk factor for stroke, based on the Framingham Risk Score, also performed more poorly on all three of the tests.

“We have identified a number of risk factors, which could be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, all of which could be modifiable," Dr. Alex Dregan, lecturer in translational epidemiology and public health at King's College London, said in a statement released by the school. "This offers valuable knowledge for future prevention and treatment interventions.”

Cardiovascular disease risk factors can be reduced by lifestyle changes. Reducing your risk factor can be achieved by eating a healthier diet, exercising regularly or quitting smoking, thus reducing cognitive decline later in life.