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Quit Smoking: Death Risk Drops Fast
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Study Shows It's Never Too Late to Get Health Benefits of Quitting Smoking
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
May 6, 2008 — The risk of dying from smoking-related causes drops significantly within just a few years of giving up cigarettes, even for longtime smokers, new research shows.
Within five years of quitting smoking, study participants experienced a 13% reduction in the risk of death from all causes, a 47% risk reduction in heart disease-related deaths, and a 27% reduction in the risk of death from stroke.
Within 20 years of quitting, the risk of dying among former smokers was similar to that of lifetime nonsmokers for most causes of death, with the exception of lung cancer.
The findings suggest that it is never too late to derive health benefits from giving up smoking, says researcher Stacey A. Kenfield, ScD, of the Harvard School of Public Health.
The study appears in the May 7 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
"The most dramatic decreases in mortality were seen within the first five years for many diseases and the risk kept declining over time," Kenfield tells WebMD.
Stop Smoking, Live Longer
The study included about 105,000 American women participating in the ongoing Nurses Health Study.
The women were between the ages of 30 and 55 at enrollment in 1976. Surviving participants completed detailed health questionnaires every two years for the past three decades.
Between the years 1980 and 2004,12,483 of the women died, with 36% of deaths occurring among women who had never smoked, 29% occurring among current smokers, and 35% occurring among past smokers.
The women in the study who gave up cigarettes smoked for an average of 15 years. Among the major findings from the study:
One Smoker's Story
As a research assistant for the Nurses Health Study, it was Liz Riley's job to read the death records of study participants.
That grim task, along with a lung test showing significant lung damage, led her to give up cigarettes for good in December 2002 after three decades of smoking.
"Reading the death records really got my attention because so many of the nurses died of smoking-related illnesses like emphysema and COPD," she tells WebMD. "I would read the records and go outside and smoke. But it really scared me."
The Nurses Health Study findings show that Riley's risk of dying from heart, vascular, and respiratory disease has dropped dramatically in the six years since she stopped smoking.
"The last few months I smoked I was really having a hard time breathing," she says. "I couldn't exercise or play any sports without becoming really out of breath. Now I feel much better."
By quitting smoking in her late 40s, Riley may have done more than she realizes to lower her odds of dying from smoking-related disease.
According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), smokers who quit before age 50 have half the risk of dying over the next 15 years as smokers who don't quit, says ACS Director of Surveillance Research Elizabeth Ward, PhD.
"People who quit smoking, regardless of their age, live longer than people who continue to smoke," she tells WebMD. "It is never too late to quit, but the earlier you quit, the better."
SOURCES: Kenfield, S.A. The Journal of the American Medical Association, May 7, 2008; vol 299: pp 2037-2047. Stacey A. Kenfield, ScD, postdoctoral research fellow, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Elizabeth Ward, PhD, director of surveillance research, American Cancer Society. Liz Riley, research assistant, Nurses Health Study.
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