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Observational studies have found associations between smoking and both poorer cognitive ability and lower educational attainment; however, evaluating causality is challenging. We used two complementary methods to explore this.
We conducted observational analyses of up to 12 004 participants in a cohort study (Study One) and Mendelian randomisation (MR) analyses using summary and cohort data (Study Two). Outcome measures were cognitive ability at age 15 and educational attainment at age 16 (Study One), and educational attainment and fluid intelligence (Study Two).
Study One: heaviness of smoking at age 15 was associated with lower cognitive ability at age 15 and lower educational attainment at age 16. Adjustment for potential confounders partially attenuated findings (e.g. fully adjusted cognitive ability β −0.736, 95% CI −1.238 to −0.233, p = 0.004; fully adjusted educational attainment β −1.254, 95% CI −1.597 to −0.911, p < 0.001). Study Two: MR indicated that both smoking initiation and lifetime smoking predict lower educational attainment (e.g. smoking initiation to educational attainment inverse-variance weighted MR β −0.197, 95% CI −0.223 to −0.171, p = 1.78 × 10−49). Educational attainment results were robust to sensitivity analyses, while analyses of general cognitive ability were less so.
We find some evidence of a causal effect of smoking on lower educational attainment, but not cognitive ability. Triangulation of evidence across observational and MR methods is a strength, but the genetic variants associated with smoking initiation may be pleiotropic, suggesting caution in interpreting these results. The nature of this pleiotropy warrants further study.