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Damage From Smoking Lingers Longer Than Thought

A new study underscores the urgency of any plan to quit

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It's a question smokers, and former smokers, have often asked: How long will it take to undo the damage of years, or decades, or lighting up? A new study released ahead of the American Heart Association's annual conference indicates it's longer than previously thought. 

While the body starts the recovery process within 20 minutes of the last cigarette, the new research shows it takes up to 16 years for cardiovascular disease risk of former smokers to return to the levels of someone who never smoked.


The study, to be presented this month, looked at nearly 8,700 participants in the Framingham Heart Study, and the risk of cardiovascular disease among current, former and non-smokers. It found that among the smokers, more than 70 percent of cardiovascular disease events (heart attack, stroke or congestive heart failure) occurred in heavy smokers — those who smoked a pack a day for 20 or more years.

The good news? “There’s an immediate benefit of quitting, and within five years, former smokers reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by 38 percent,” says Meredith Duncan, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and lead author of the study. “We cannot underscore enough the benefits of quitting,” she says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for those over 65. 

If you are a former smoker, even if it’s been many, many years since your last cigarette, cigar or pipe you might still be at higher risk for those cardiovascular problems. “It’s important for former smokers to continue to talk to their doctors about their cardiovascular risk and how to manage or reduce that risk,” Duncan says.

And it’s more important than ever for current smokers to quit, difficult as that is. Here are some tips to help you succeed:

1. Make a plan to quit. Making one sets you up for success by anticipating the difficulties that lie ahead. For example, writing down your reasons for quitting — and keeping the list at hand — increases your chance of sticking to your resolution. So do identifying people who can support you, figuring out your trigger situations — slow afternoons, having a glass of wine? — and making a plan to manage them without tobacco. You can print out a plan or fill it out online at smokefree.gov. Another government resource, smokefree 60+, helps people quit smoking and provides other information about how to get started.

2. Get support.  Evidence shows that getting formal help increases chances of quitting, says Hilary Tindle, M.D., founding director of the Vanderbilt Center for Tobacco, Addiction and Lifestyle. A support group or counselor can help, she notes, but so can layering on several types of structured help and opting for little assists like the National Cancer Institute’s free texting program (smokefreeTXT). Once you register online, they'll send you three to five customized tips and motivational messages a day to help keep you on track. 

3. Consider using meds to boost your chance of success. “The best chances of quitting smoking come from using FDA-approved medication, such as nicotine patch or varenicline (Chantix), in conjunction with counseling,” Dr. Tindle says. “This approach can double or even triple chances of quitting compared to using no help.” Free counseling and, in many cases, free medication can be obtained from the quit line (800-QUIT-NOW), which automatically connects to your state’s hotline.

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