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The study included more than 1,500 people taking part in a clinical trial to help them quit smoking. Before and one year after the participants stopped smoking, doctors used ultrasound to measure the patients' flow-mediated dilation (FMD), a gauge of the health of the brachial artery, the main artery of the upper arm.
The ability of the brachial artery to relax is closely related to the ability of the heart arteries to relax, and predicts risk for future heart and blood vessel disease, explained the University of Wisconsin researchers.
They compared the FMD readings from patients who successfully quit with those who quit and then resumed smoking.
"Individuals who quit smoking had improved blood vessel function, even though they gained weight, which is a common side effect of smoking cessation," study author Dr. James Stein, an associate professor of medicine at UW School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a university news release. "This confirms that quitting smoking is good for your blood vessels and reduces risk for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease."
FMD improved by as much as 1 percent among patients who had quit smoking for a full year. That's a significant improvement, according to Stein.
"It's statistically significant, but more important, it's also clinically relevant," he said. "A 1 percent change in FMD is associated with an approximately 14 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease events. That means patients who permanently quit smoking are less likely to have a heart attack and heart disease."
The study was presented this week at the American College of Cardiology annual meeting in Atlanta and published simultaneously in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Cardiovascular disease is the cause of about one-third of smoking-related premature deaths in the United States.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: University of Wisconsin, news release, March 15, 2010