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Secondhand Smoke May Cause Learning Disabilities in Children

written by: AlyssaAst•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 7/31/2011

A July 2011 study suggests children who are frequently exposed to secondhand smoke have an increased risk for developing a learning disability. Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke are twice as likely to suffer from a learning disability when compared to children who aren't exposed.

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    Most people know that smoking is hazardous to their own health and that there are dangers associated with secondhand smoke as well. The risks of secondhand smoke now include common childhood learning disabilities, including ADHD. According to the study, published in Pediatrics online, children who are exposed to secondhand smoke have as much as a 50 percent increased risk for learning disabilities and neurobehavioral disorders when compared to children who remain unexposed to secondhand smoke.

    "They're in a developmental stage and their body is growing," which puts kids at a greater risk, said study co-author Hillel Alpert.

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    Secondhand Smoke and Learning Disabilities

    A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health discovered a link between secondhand smoke and childhood learning disabilities after analyzing data from the 2007 National Survey on Children's Health. They discovered that secondhand smoke may be responsible for more than 250,000 cases of childhood ADHD and other neurobehavioral disorders in the U.S. The study focused on children who were exposed to secondhand smoke from birth to 12 years of age and the learning disabilities these children were diagnosed with.

    The researchers analyzed information from over 50,000 children and found that children who are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke are almost twice as likely to develop a learning disability when compared to children who aren’t. It’s estimated nearly 5 million U.S. children 11 years old and younger are exposed to secondhand smoke regularly. The researchers found nearly 8.2 percent of children who have learning disabilities are exposed to secondhand smoke. Six percent of these children have ADHD. Although there appears to be a connection, researchers are unable to determine the exact cause of the relationship between secondhand smoke and childhood learning disabilities.

    The research authors state, “Assuming a causal relationship, 274,100 excess cases of these disorders could have been prevented had the children not been exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes.”

    Little remains known about the exact cause of common childhood learning disabilities, such as ADHD, other than the fact boys are more likely to have a learning disability when compared to girls. Researchers can’t be fully certain secondhand smoke causes learning disabilities, but there’s clearly a connection. Researchers attempted to adjust other factors in the study, such as race, age, poverty and the child’s gender, to find a more accurate correlation between the two; however, they were unsuccessful. Researchers do believe if secondhand smoke is the cause of learning disabilities, 274,000 children with learning disabilities would have been preventable if the children weren’t exposed to the secondhand smoke.

    "We found that children who are exposed to secondhand smoke in the home have a 50 percent increase in odds of having two or three of these common neurobehavioral disorders," said study co-author Hillel Alpert, research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.

    Due to the potential risk of developing a learning disability, plus the numerous other health risks associated with secondhand smoke, Alpert states, "Parents should consider banning smoking from their homes." Alpert went on to say, "The key message for parents is to protect their children from exposure to secondhand smoke."

    With these findings, smokers are encouraged to stop smoking now more than ever, not only for their own health, but the health of their children as well. "This is particularly significant with regard to the potential burden of pediatric mental healthcare on an overextended healthcare system, a problem that could be dramatically reduced if voluntary smoke-free home policies were widely adopted," reports the Centers for Disease Control.

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    Children and Smoking

    Coinciding with the secondhand smoke and learning disability study was another study, which evaluated whether or not children who are exposed to smoke will become smokers later in life. It’s estimated, 4.8 million American children live with adult smokers. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine surveyed 165 children who ranged in age from 8 to 13 years of age about their opinions of smoking. The researchers concluded that children who have negative feelings about smoking are less likely to become smokers later in life.

    ''We found that kids who reported that secondhand smoke exposure is 'unpleasant' or 'gross' were less likely to be susceptible to smoking,'' said study author Christina Lessov-Schlaggar.

    There’s no doubt smoking has an impact on children who grow up with smokers in the home. There are many health complications that can occur for children who are often exposed to secondhand smoke, and now there’s the risk of developing a potential learning disability.

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