Drinking and Smoking and MCI

II

I know, I know, if drinking and smoking are not good for anyone, their effect on people with memory loss has to be worse.

In fact one of the first things Ralph’s primary physician said after the diagnosis—no alcohol, no smoking.

But bad habits are hard to give up. And making someone else give them up is even harder. And to be honest, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe Ralph shouldn’t hang on to a few bad habits for a sense of normalcy. There are so many aspects of Ralph-ness he’s already letting go—the real estate dealmaker has lost his touch for number-crunching, the Bob Dylan fanatic doesn’t listen to music any more, the husband who used to only half-jokingly call himself the captain of the family passively agrees with every decision I make. Not that I’m complaining because Ralph’s temper has disappeared or because he’s become a sweeter, gentler human being; but the changes have spooked me a little.

God knows that for most of the length of our 35-year marriage I nagged Ralph repeatedly to cut down on both booze and nicotine. I have always been a bit of a stick-in-the-mud prude. I never smoked even as a kid and my drinking is limited to a very occasional glass of wine; after two I’m tipsy or worse. But I understand addictive habits; if there’s chocolate or ice cream in the house watch out.

Ralph has downed at least three or four cans a night for as long as I’ve known him. Well, actually, he probably drank closer to a six-pack many days. In fact when Ralph first started showing signs of cognitive loss, months before the MCI diagnosis, I thought his problems had to do with his Natty-Lite consumption (and I still believe it didn’t help). We talked about the connection—that he was always fuzzier at night, the same time of day he imbibed—and Ralph has actually cut down on his own. Now he drinks one or two, never more than three cans of lite beer around dinnertime, and not every night. Drinking less has obviously not cured his memory issues, and do I really want to take that bit of pleasure away?

As for smoking, Ralph went cold turkey when the kids were small and stayed nicotine free for over twenty years, but it only took one puff on a cigar at a Fourth of July party to get him hooked again five years ago. In retrospect he started smoking again around the same time that his memory began to slip, before we acknowledged it except as a joke although he may have been more worried privately than he let on.

At first he smoked just a cigar or two a day. He kept saying he was about to quit. Instead, he smoked more. He never smoked in the house; instead he’d find excuses to go off in his car or sit bundled up on the front porch on the coldest winter day lighting one cigar after another. All my nagging fell on deaf ears. The more anxious he became about his memory, the more he smoked. By the time he was diagnosed with MCI last spring, he was up to a pack a day. And remember, we’re talking a pack of cigars, cheap, skinny, smelly ones that have to be stronger than the equivalent number of cigarettes.

So last month, in an ironic turn of events, I found myself convincing him to switch back to cigarettes for two reasons: 1., he’d have to smoke a lot more of them to hit the same nicotine level he was reaching with the cigars and 2., my more selfish reason, the cigarettes wouldn’t stink up his clothes as much. The old Ralph would have fought me, but the new Ralph made the switch.

Now I remember how much I hate cigarettes smoke.

But two days ago I came across a 2012 Georgetown University study showing that nicotine may actually slow down MCI. I couldn’t quite believe, so I talked to the nurse practitioner in our neurologist’s office. She said the results aren’t in on Alzheimer’s-related dementia there is some evidence that nicotine helps with Parkinson’s.

Meanwhile, Ralph’s down to less than half a pack a day. So now I’m feeling guilty not only because he still drinks but also because he might quit smoking because of me. But I can’t bring myself to show him the Georgetown article.

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