- Smokers who quit for 15 years have same risk of heart failure and death as someone who never smoked, new study reveals
- Current smokers found to be 50% more likely to have heart problems than never smokers or former smokers, scientists said
- Smoking causes the build-up of plaque in the arteries, narrowing them
- Increases the risk of suffering a blood clot or fatal heart attack
Smokers who quit the habit for 15 years significantly reduce their risk of heart failure or death, new research has revealed. Scientists have discovered that those who stubbed out their last cigarettes almost two decades ago had similar risk as those who had never smoked.
While the results were positive for all smokers, those who were deemed heavy smokers – meaning at least a pack a day for 32 years or more – were found to still have a slightly elevated risk. But the message is clear, Dr Ali Ahmed, from the Washington DC VA Medical Center, said, people need to smoke less, quit earlier and if possible never smoke at all.
He said: ‘While all individuals who quit smoking will benefit from a decreased chance of death, to achieve the full complement of health benefits of smoking cessation of one who has never smoked, smokers need to smoke less and quit early, and for those are not smokers – never start smoking.’
Dr Ahmed and his colleagues used the ongoing Cardiovascular Health Study of adults over age 65 to arrive at their findings.
They analysed data from 2,556 people who had never smoked, 629 current smokers and 1,297 former smokers who had quit at least 15 years earlier.
Of those who had quit, 312 had been heavy smokers, with 32 ‘pack-years’ or more of smoking. After 13 years of follow-up, about 21 per cent of never smokers and 21 per cent of former smokers experienced heart failure. But among former smokers with at least 32 pack-years, almost 30 per cent suffered heart failure.
When the researchers accounted for other factors like age, sex, race, education, other health conditions and medications, current smokers were about 50 per cent more likely to have heart failure than never smokers or former smokers. Over the same time period, current smokers were twice as likely to die from any cause, compared to never smokers, and former heavy smokers were about 26 per cent more likely than never smokers to die.
‘When one smokes, it induces atherosclerosis, or the build-up of plaque in the arteries,’ which narrows the arteries and increases the risk of blood clot or heart attack, Dr Ahmed told Reuters Health.
‘However, when one quits smoking, the buildup of plaque and risk of blood of clots decreases, allowing one’s cardiovascular risk to return to normal over time.’ Dr Gerasimos Siasos, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who was not part of the study, said: ‘To date, this is the first study that investigated the role of amount and duration of prior smoking on the health benefits of prolonged cessation for former smokers.’
Former heavy smokers may not achieve the health profile of never smokers, but the cardiovascular risk for them is definitely lower compared to current smokers, Dr Siasos told Reuters Health. Quitting smoking also reduces the risk of lung cancer and other cancers of the upper gastrointestinal tract, said Bich Tran, a public health and epidemiology researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Dr Tran was also not involved in the new study.
Disease risk starts to decrease as soon as you quit, even for people of older age, she said. ‘Our body can heal itself,’ Dr Tran said. ‘Within 12 hours or few days after the smoking, the level of carbon monoxide in blood will decline and the circulatory system will start repairing the damage.’
This is a slow process and sometimes quitting smoking can cause discomforts like weight gain, sore gums and tongue, coughing or trouble sleeping, she noted. ‘These results highlight the importance of smoking cessation for cardiovascular health and moreover support the notion that smokers who cannot quit should be encouraged to reduce their amount of smoking,’ Dr Siasos said.
Doctors should target former heavy smokers for cardiovascular screening, he said. The study was published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure.
Published: 18 June 2015. By LIZZIE PARRY
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