Quitting Smoking Cuts Heart Disease Risk Faster

By Shawn Dwyer 11/25/13

New research shows that risk of heart disease will return to non-smoker levels in almost half the time as previously thought

Twenty percent of heart disease deaths come from smoking
Photo via Shutterstock

For smokers 65 years old or over, kicking the habit now can greatly reduce their risk of heart disease by the time they’re barely into their 70s.

A new study from researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham has found that quitting smoking may reduce the risk of heart-related problems to non-smoker levels a mere eight years after cessation. Previous research indicated that it could take as long as 15 years. Sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, researchers went back to 1989 and examined 13 years of data from the Cardiovascular Health Study, before comparing 853 smokers over the age of 65 who had quit for 15 years or less to 2,557 people who had never smoked. Researchers found that some people who smoked 32 pack years or less – a pack year being the number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years a person smoked – saw their risk of heart failure, heart attacks, and stroke drop in nearly half the time as previously thought. "For half of them, it was eight years after cessation," said Dr. Ali Amed, professor of cardiovascular disease at the University of Alabama and author of the study. "It's good news. Now there's a chance for even less of a waiting period to get a cleaner bill of cardiovascular health,” he said.

The results, while promising, were not at all surprising given previous research showing that a smoker’s health starts to improve within hours of quitting; heart rates, blood pressure, and carbon monoxide levels all drop inside 12 hours. Within two days, taste and smell improve, and after 72 hours breathing becomes easier. After a year, the risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a non-smoker. “It’s interesting to see that recovery comes sooner than we thought,” said Dr. Merle Myerson, director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Pre-Exercise Heart Screening Program at St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “It’s encouraging, but we’ve seen before that changes in the body happen very quickly when you stop smoking.”

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.