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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Nicotine Patch for Memory Loss?

Seniors' Memory, Focus Improved by Nicotine
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 5, 2003 -- Nicotine patches can improve memory and focus in seniors, a small study suggests.

The Duke University study included 11 seniors with age-associated memory impairment. That's a common condition in which a person has the brief memory lapses known as "senior moments." The participants' ages ranged from 62 to 90.

For four weeks, the seniors wore either the same nicotine patches people use to quit smoking or a fake patch. After a two-week washout period, those who had placebo patches got the real thing, and vice versa.

After getting nicotine -- but not after getting a placebo patch -- the seniors completed memory and attention tests twice as fast as they had before treatment. Moreover, the seniors themselves reported improved memory after getting a nicotine boost.

"The results of this study suggest that when used appropriately -- and under the right conditions -- nicotine may alleviate the symptoms of mild forms of memory loss," Duke nicotine expert Edward Levin, PhD, says in a news release.

Don't Try This at Home

This does not mean everyone who has senior moments should start using nicotine patches -- or cigarettes.

"While the results are encouraging, seniors should not try nicotine skin patches until larger studies testing the efficacy -- and safety -- of their use have been conducted, Levin warns.

Nicotine is a serious drug. It's one of the world's most addictive substances. And the nicotine patch has side effects, including nausea, dizziness, and increased blood pressure and heart rate. Nicotine patches are not approved for long-term use.

And for health reasons that should be obvious, the findings aren't an excuse for anyone to take up or continue smoking.

Duke geriatrics expert Heidi White, MD, is the study's lead author. She hopes that the findings will give researchers new treatments for both mild and severe memory loss.

"We hope [these findings] will translate into treatments that allow people to actually function better in their daily lives," White says in a news release.

The findings appear in the online first edition of Psychopharmacology.

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