Elderly smokers and women hoping to conceive both can experience substantial health gains from giving up tobacco, according to a flurry of new medical findings that continue to emphasize the dangers of smoking.
On the one hand, a team at a Veterans Administration hospital in Houston has found that older smokers--even if they have smoked several packs of cigarettes a day for as long as 50 years--still have a great deal to gain by giving up tobacco.
If they quit, the Houston scientists say, elderly smokers will feel noticeably better within a year. More important, though, they will apparently reduce their chances of having a stroke and potentially will delay the onset of a variety of forms of senility--including Alzheimer's disease.
At the other end of the life cycle, two researchers at the federal government's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina say they have uncovered new evidence that cigarette smoking can markedly reduce a woman's fertility and delay her ability to conceive.
While tobacco falls far short of being a contraceptive, said one of the researchers, Dr. Donna Day Baird, the new study clearly tells women that, if they smoke, they should stop before starting to try to conceive--and not wait until after they know they are pregnant.
Still a third study of smoking indicates that Baird's message apparently is not being received by women in the United States. An analysis of cigarette consumption patterns from 1981 to 1983 indicates that, while most sex and age groups in the United States are recording gradual reduction in smoking per capita, women in general--and young white women, in particular--are becoming an ever greater proportion of all smokers because their consumption is not falling as quickly as that of men and other women.
For the 18- to 22-year-old group, in fact, women now have a higher smoking rate than men--34.9% versus 34%.
If present trends continue, concluded the government's Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, smoking rates for men and women may be identical by 1990 and the lung cancer rate for women may exceed that of men by the turn of the century.
The cluster of new reports--led by the studies of the effects of smoking cessation in the elderly and the effect of smoking on conception--appears today in a special issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. devoted almost entirely to major new smoking research. It represents the second time in six months that the journal--one of the nation's best known--has devoted a whole issue to smoking studies.
This week's publication date is almost exactly 35 years after the Journal of the AMA published the landmark study that first proved the causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. The historic paper, which has become a classic in public health circles, is being reprinted in the same issue with the new research reports.
The journal's editor, Dr. George Lundberg, said the devotion of so much space to one subject in two issues only a few months apart--unprecedented, he said, in the journal's history--occurred for several reasons. He noted that more promising smoking and health work is now under way than at any time in the past and that the AMA is considering for adoption--perhaps as soon as next month--a major new policy statement on tobacco use and addiction.
In the study of the benefits of quitting among the elderly, the Houston team, led by Dr. John S. Meyer, used new techniques to measure blood flow to the brains of 258 subjects, including non-smokers, smokers who had quit and people still smoking. The subjects are all over 55 and had been smoking an average of 30 to 40 years--some as long as more than 50 years.
Using the new methods--which permit precise calculation of the amounts of blood entering the brain without the need to insert instruments inside the skull--Meyer and his team found that, even in elderly smokers who have smoked heavily for decades, many of the harmful effects of smoking reverse themselves within 12 months after stopping smoking.
The discovery is a pointed contradiction of the beliefs of many elderly smokers, who often say they continue to smoke both because they have been at it so long that stopping isn't possible and because they would not realize any benefit if they did.
On the contrary, Meyer said, the amounts of blood reaching brain tissue increased dramatically within 12 months after elderly smokers quit. While brain blood supply can't affect a person's risk of developing lung cancer, Meyer said, providing more blood to the brain can markedly decrease a person's risk of having a stoke.