Start reversing smoking’s damage — today!

December 17, 2010 By Michael J. McNamee, M.D.

When you think of the hazards of smoking, lung cancer or emphysema typically come to mind. The truth is that smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and takes a particularly hard toll on the heart.

How smoking hurts
When you smoke, the toxic ingredients in cigarettes damage your body in several ways — mutating genes, weakening blood vessels, altering blood consistency and diminishing cell function. For example, nicotine speeds heart rate, narrows arteries and makes blood sticky. Other chemicals in cigarettes bind to the hemoglobin in red blood cells, reducing their ability to carry oxygen. Smoking deteriorates artery linings and promotes fat and plaque deposits. As a result, smoking causes:

• decreased blood flow
• diminished oxygen to the heart
• higher blood pressure
• faster heart rate
• increased blood clotting
• decreased HDL (good) cholesterol

Can you reverse the damage?
Regardless of how long you've been smoking, there are significant health benefits to stopping. The risk of dying from a host of smoking-related diseases goes down when you quit. Here's the lowdown:

Cancer. A woman who smokes is 12 times more likely to die of lung cancer than a nonsmoker; a male smoker is 22 times more likely. But once a person quits, the risk drops steadily. After five smoke-free years, the lung-cancer death rate for an average smoker (one pack a day) is reduced almost by half. By 10 years, the risk of getting lung cancer decreases further toward that of a nonsmoker. Quitting smoking also decreases the chance that a person will develop cancer of the mouth, throat, pancreas and bladder.

Coronary artery disease. Smokers are at a higher risk for developing and dying from coronary heart disease, or CHD. The American Cancer Society points out that a smoker's chance of a heart attack drops within 24 hours of his or her last cigarette. After one year of abstinence, the increased risk of CHD is reduced by half.

Stroke. Smokers are at increased risk for stroke. When a smoker quits, the risk drops to that of a nonsmoker. How long does that take? In studies completed so far, it's ranged from five to 20 years.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Called COPD for short, this includes lung diseases like emphysema. Smoking leads to COPD by greatly speeding up the decline in lung function that occurs as people age. Within five years of quitting, however, you can slow the rate of decline in your lung function to that of the average nonsmoker.

You control your future
Smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. No matter how many years you've smoked, it's never too late to stop. Don't bother with light or low-tar cigarettes; they're no better than regular versions and you'll end up smoking more of them. The only safe choice is to quit completely. Talk to your healthcare provider about finding a smoking cessation program for you.

Dr. Michael McNamee is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HCC) medical staff and director of HCC's Pulmonary/Critical Care Medicine. For referrals to HCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service, 800.321.6244.