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Even the oldest smokers can live longer if they quit, study says

June 11, 2012|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Even senior citizens can reduce their risk of premature death by giving up cigarettes, a new study says.
Even senior citizens can reduce their risk of premature death by giving… (Yuri Cortez / AFP/GettyImages…)

It’s never too late to improve your health by giving up cigarettes, according to a new study that looks at how smoking behavior was linked with mortality in people over age 60.

Lifelong smokers often tell themselves that there’s no point in giving up the habit now, after so much damage has already been done. They may also tell themselves that if smoking were truly bad for them, they would have died already.

But neither of these convenient excuses is true, according to the study published Monday in Archives of Internal Medicine. Three experts from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg combed through 17 studies from the U.S., China, Australia, Japan, England, Spain and France that followed between 863 and 877,243 people for periods ranging from three to 50 years.

After crunching the numbers, they found that compared with people who have never smoked, smokers over the age of 60 were 83% more likely to die while they were being tracked. By comparision, former smokers over the age of 60 were 34% more likely to die while they were being tracked. So moving from the “current smoker” category to the “former smoker” category would reduce one’s risk of premature death by 28%.

Some of the studies contained enough data to compare people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. In a commentary that accompanied the study, Dr. Tai Hing Lam of the University of Hong Kong calculated that for people in their 60s, quitting was linked with a 21% decrease in the risk of premature death. For those in their 70s, that risk was reduced by 27%, and for those in their 80s, the risk fell by 24%.

In general, the studies showed that the longer a person had been classified as a “former smoker” (as opposed to a “current smoker”), the more their risk of premature death fell. By contrast, “current smokers show highest absolute mortality rates in all studies,” the researchers reported.

“The hazardous effects of smoking persist even in oldest age,” the authors concluded. “Even older people who smoked for a lifetime without negative health consequences should be encouraged and supported to quit smoking.”

Lam was more direct with his advice: “Most smokers grossly underestimate their own risks,” he wrote. The World Health Organization likes to say that one out of every two smokers will die from their habit, a statistic that should be printed on all packages of cigarettes “so that all smokers know that they are betting their lives on the toss of a coin,” Lam wrote. (He also added that among those who picked up the habit at a young age, it’s more like two out of three who will die from smoking.)

Doctors should spend at least a few minutes reminding their patients that smoking will increase their risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory problems and other serious diseases, and explain that no matter how old they are, those risks will fall if they give up cigarettes, Lam wrote. Smokers should be referred to quit lines or clinics over and over until the message gets through.

“If you have helped 2 smokers quit,” he concluded, “you have saved (at least) 1 life.”

You can read the study online here and the commentary here.

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

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