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Why Quitting Smoking is Good for Your Health — Even if You’re Over 70

March 12, 2017

Even if you’ve smoked for decades, it’s never too late to kick the habit, according to one recent study.

In the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers wanted to assess mortality rates associated with the age at which people quit smoking, the age at which they began smoking and the effect of smoking after age 70. They examined data from a national healthy study of more than 160,000 people over age 70, 56 percent of whom were former smokers and 6 percent of whom were current smokers. In the study, participants self-reported their smoking habits between 2004-2005 on a questionnaire and researchers tracked patients through the end of 2011. They then conducted an analysis between 2014 and 2016 to find a connection between participants’ age at death and the age when they began or quit smoking.

Researchers discovered several things:

  • 31 percent of men in the study were less likely to have never smoked compared to 48 percent of women.
  • Men also smoked more than women and were more likely to start earlier. Nineteen percent of men said they began smoking at age 15 vs.10 percent of women.
  • 16 percent of participants died during the six-year period researchers tracked. Among this group, 12 percent had never smoked.
  • Likely because of these patterns, women had lower death rates than men in the study — irrespective of age.
  • The later someone quit smoking, the higher the death rate. There was a 16-percent death rate for those who quit in their 30s, a 20-percent rate for those who quit in their 40s and a 24-percent death rate for those who quit in their 50s. If someone quit in their 60s, the rate was 28 percent.
  • Current smokers had the highest mortality rate: 33 percent died over the course of the study, or one in three people.

Risks of Smoking

What this study tells us is that the risks of smoking become more pronounced — and more likely to lead to early death — the longer you smoke.

Researchers tracked causes of death in the study, including lung cancer and other smoking-related cancers such as kidney, colon, bladder, pancreatic, liver and stomach cancers. They also tracked smoking-related deaths from conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

This list of diseases and conditions makes it frightening clear just how bad smoking is for you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking causes more deaths annually than HIV, illegal drug use, drinking, car accidents and gun-related deaths combined. It kills 480,000 Americans every year and is one of the driving factors of early death among Americans — meaning people may live longer if they quit. Smoking is responsible for 80 percent of COPD deaths and increases the risk of all causes of death in both men and women, according to the CDC.

In addition to the conditions I previously outlined, smoking also may cause:

  • Asthma
  • Gum disease
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Reproductive issues in women, such as ectopic pregnancy, when the egg grows outside the uterus
  • Premature or low-birth weight babies
  • Vision loss, including blindness, cataracts and age-related macular degeneration
  • Cervical, esophageal, head and neck and renal pelvis cancers

You can find a complete list of diseases caused by smoking in this U.S. Surgeon General report.

Prevalence of Smoking Today

According to the most recent data available, smoking rates have declined in the U.S.: 15 percent of American adults age 18 and older currently smoke. But when you look at the raw numbers, that’s still millions of people. According to the CDC, 36.5 million Americans smoke and more than 16 million currently live with a smoking-related disease.

The 15 percent rate is the lowest rate since the government began tracking smoking among Americans in 1997. Part of the decline may be due to public awareness efforts launched by the CDC and other health organizations, taxes on tobacco and the FDA beginning to regulate tobacco in 2009.

Among those who smoke in the U.S.:

  • Nearly 17 percent of men smoke
  • Nearly 14 percent of women smoke
  • Almost 18 percent of adults age 25-44 smoke; 13 percent of adults age 18-24 and 8.4 percent of adults age 65 and older.
  • About 15 percent of people who live in the South smoke, while the Midwest has the highest smoking rates: nearly 19 out of every 100 adults in the region smoke.

Quitting Smoking

Cigarettes contain more than 7,000 toxic chemicals and about 70 of these chemicals can cause cancer, according to the CDC.

That is why it’s so important for people to quit. However, it’s also one of the most challenging things for smokers to do. In 2015, about 68 percent of American adults said they wanted to quit smoking.

That same year, according to CDC data, more than 55 percent of adult smokers stopped smoking for at least one day in an attempt to quit. Of this group, nearly 67 percent of adults age 18-24 made an attempt to quit compared to nearly 60 percent of Americans age 25-44, nearly 50 percent of those age 45-64 and 47 percent of those 65 and older. The data shows that at least some of them were successful. Smoking rates dropped 2 percent from 2014 — the largest one-year decline since 1993.

The CDC says most smokers quit without using proven treatments such as behavioral therapy, individual or group counseling or a brief health consultation with their doctor. Research has shown that quitting cold turkey may be one of the most effective ways to stop smoking. In one study released last year, 49 percent of participants who quit cold turkey but used nicotine patches for two weeks beforehand weren’t smoking one month later. About 39 percent of those who quit gradually and used nicotine replacement products like lozenges and gums weren’t smoking one month later. Six months later, those who had quit cold turkey were still more successful than those who had done it gradually.

Quitting smoking comes with several health benefits, including a reduced risk of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, a reduced risk of developing COPD and other lung diseases and a reduction in respiratory symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath. All of these conditions impact your quality of life, so quitting can reduce your risk of early death and improve your overall health — that’s true no matter what age you quit, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine study I originally mentioned.

If you want to quit smoking, consider nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine gum, nasal sprays, inhalers, lozenges and the patch. These products, which either deliver nicotine through the lungs or bloodstream, work by giving you a small dose of nicotine to help control nicotine cravings. Some of these products come with side effects such as cough, sore throat, running nose, headache or throat irritation, but on the whole they are considered one of the most effective ways to quit smoking, according to the CDC, with some studies showing they may be more effective than quitting cold turkey in certain patients. Prescription medications, such as Zyban® and Chantix®, helps reduce nicotine withdrawal in those trying to quite smoking, as well as the urge to smoke.

It’s also worth noting that more people are turning to e-cigarettes to help them quit, but the jury is still out on how effective this method is for smoking cessation. E-cigarettes have been linked to increased levels of adrenaline in the heart (which may increase heart disease risk) and may lower the body’s immune defenses. Overall, the medical community still needs to do more research to determine the long-term safety of e-cigarettes, so until then nicotine replacement therapy, cold turkey, behavioral treatment or counseling may be more effective ways to quit.

Smoking & Your Health

Smoking is deadly. It increases your risk of early death and makes you more susceptible to other diseases and conditions. It also impacts your quality of life. People with COPD, for example, may have increased wheelchair dependence and have to rely on oxygen for the rest of their lives if they don’t quit.

However, one of the biggest risks associated with smoking is lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death among men and women. Furthermore,10-15% of lung cancers are caused by second hand smoke. In the last half century, lung cancer and pancreatic cancer (also smoking-related) are the only two forms of cancers that have not had much improvement in mortality. That may be because smoking still has a hold on millions of Americans, despite their efforts to quit. If the recent study proves one thing, it’s that it is never too late to quit. Even if you’re over 70, taking this step could prolong your life.

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