A new study presented in November at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2013 shows that smokers over the age of 65 may be able to lower their risk of heart disease to the level of those who have never smoked more quickly than previously believed.
The study, presented by Dr. Ali Ahmed, M.P.H., shows that older people who smoked less than 32 “pack years” and who gave up smoking 15 or less years before lowered their risks of developing heart failure or risking of heart failure, heart attacks and strokes to the same level as those who never smoked. Researchers had previously believed it would take at least 15 years for former smokers to reach that level.
In Ahmed’s study, the median length of time to reach the risk level of those who never smoked was eight years.
Ahmed, senior researcher and professor of cardiovascular disease at the University of Alabama’s at Birmingham’s School of Medicine, called the results “good news.”
“Now there’s a chance for even less of a waiting period to get a cleaner bill of cardiovascular health,” Ahmed said.
Dr. Moustafa Banna, cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Cleburne and Texas Health Physicians Group, said the study results did not surprise him.
“We all know that smoking is damaging to all organs, especially to the cardiovascular system. And we know that smokers can improve their health by quitting. This is, finally, just data confirming what we have expected for some time,” Banna said. “But seven, eight years is still a long time to wait to benefit from stopping smoking, so the best thing is to stop smoking sooner rather than later.”
The trick, though, is in quitting. And that’s not easy, even with all the options available now — both prescription and over the counter — to help smokers quit, Banna acknowledged.
The first step to quitting is making up your mind to quit, he said.
“You have to believe that you need to quit and you have to believe that you will quit,” Banna said. “There are therapies and medications and supplement that can help control [the urge to smoke and the physical effects of stopping]. But if you are not mentally prepared to quit, none of those things will matter.”
With New Year’s Eve a month away, many smokers might be considering making a New Year’s resolution to quit.
“If that’s what it takes, a New Year’s resolution, then make that resolution,” Banna said. “If you need to do it slowly, do it slowly. If you need to quit all at once, quit all at once. If you need a prescription medication or nicotine gum to help control the urges, then get those things. Just do it. No excuses.”
But first, he reiterated, make up your mind it’s time. Without that determination, nothing you try will work, Banna said.
In the new study, Ahmed and his colleagues analyzed 13 years of medical information compiled in the Cardiovascular Health Study, started in 1989 and funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. They compared 853 people who quit smoking 15 or less years before with 2,557 people who had never smoked.
Of the 853 smokers in the study, 319 had smoked less than 32 pack years, with pack years determined by multiplying the cigarette packs smoked per day times the number of years the person smoked.
All the participants were over 65 years old and results were adjusted for age, gender and race.
Those who had smoked less than 32.4 pack years but had quit up to 15 or more years previously still had higher risks of dying from causes unrelated to cardiovascular health, such as cancer, chronic pulmonary disease and emphysema. Those who had smoked more than 32 pack years had higher risks of dying from any health condition.
“Smoking is the most preventable cause of early death in America,” Ahmed said. “If you smoke, quit, and quit early.”
Better yet, Banna said, “Never start smoking.”