The acute use of alcohol and several other licit and illicit drugs can affect mental state and cognitive function. The chronic use of certain drugs may also increase the risk of cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia in later life. This paper focuses on the long-term cognitive consequences of using alcohol, benzodiazepines, tobacco and cannabis. Currently available evidence indicates that mild to moderate alcohol consumption is not associated with increased risk of cognitive decline and may in fact have a protective effect against dementia, although heavy, long-term consumption is likely to have a negative impact on cognitive function. The degree that alcohol-related cognitive impairment must reach to be classified as dementia is currently obscure. Longer-term smoking is associated with increased risk of cognitive impairment and possibly dementia. The chronic use of benzodiazepines has been associated with increased risk of cognitive impairment but information relating to dementia remains inconclusive. The chronic use of cannabis may impair intellectual abilities but data on this topic remain sparse and difficult to interpret. In conclusion, there is evidence that some drugs contribute to the causal pathway that leads to the development of cognitive impairment but currently available data do not support the introduction of a separate diagnostic category of drug-induced dementia (such as alcohol-related dementia). Health promotion programs designed to decrease tobacco smoking and “harmful” alcohol use (and possibly other drug use) may decrease the burden of cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia in later life.
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