Researchers are studying whether a nicotine patch can also help people suffering with memory loss.
The research is part of a clinical trial at Georgetown University Medical Center in D.C.
Participant Pat Maher worked for the CIA as a political analyst for almost 40 years, but his short-term memory is fading, and the cognitive changes have become hard to ignore.
"You’ll notice as we’re talking now that I’m pausing to try to remember something like President Trump," he said. "I have trouble remembering his name and I don’t think it’s a partisan response."
The 77-year-old married father of three has mild cognitive impairment — a condition that affects nearly 1 in 7 adults over the age of 65 and may be a precursor to dementia and Alzheimer's disease, which runs in Maher's family.
"My mother had premature senile dementia at age 59, so I had a pretty obvious interest after that," he said.
When he heard about the MIND study at Georgetown, he wanted in. The clinical trial is the largest and longest of its kind, enrolling up to 300 people in 23 states to see if a nicotine patch, developed to help smokers kick the habit, can also help sharpen memory and attention.
Dr. R. Scott Turner, the director of the memory disorders program at Georgetown, is enrolling more volunteers for the research.
A small pilot study in 2012 showed promise, which is why the research is being expanded to track more people over a longer period of time with higher doses of nicotine.
Turner hopes the research will one day be part of the strategy to fight Alzheimer's disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans.
"I think we will have a cocktail approach depending on where you are in your stage of memory decline," Turner said. "There’s still a lot of work to be done to get there. The research is very slow because the disease is very slow, which is in one way a blessing but also a curse."