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Is the damage from smoking reversible?

Women smokers: At additional risk
Women smokers: At additional risk

Women who smoke face additional health consequences, including increased risk of cervical cancer and osteoporosis, reduced fertility, and an earlier menopause.

Women who quit can virtually eliminate these risks. For example, among women ex-smokers, the risk of a first heart attack drops to that of a nonsmoker within three to four years of stopping, regardless of how long or how much she smoked.

We all know that smoking is unhealthy. But many continue to smoke, believing that it’s not worth the effort to quit because the damage has been done. The good news: With time, much of the damage from smoking can be reversed.

In fact, regardless of how long a person has been smoking, there are significant health benefits to stopping. Overall, people who kick the habit live longer than those who don’t. This is because the risk of dying from a host of smoking-related diseases goes down when one quits. Lung cancer is one of these diseases, of course. But smoking also causes other cancers and non-cancer diseases. Here’s the lowdown:

CANCER. A woman who smokes is 12 times more likely to die of lung cancer than a nonsmoker; a male smoker is 22 times more likely. But once a person quits, the risk drops steadily. After five smoke-free years, the lung-cancer death rate for an average smoker (one pack a day) is reduced almost by half. By 10 years, the risk of getting lung cancer is the same as that of a nonsmoker. Quitting smoking also decreases the chance that a person will develop cancer of the mouth, throat, pancreas and bladder.

CORONARY HEART DISEASE. Smokers are at a higher risk for developing and dying from coronary heart disease, or CHD. The American Cancer Society points out that a smoker’s chance of a heart attack drops within 24 hours of his or her last cigarette. After one year of abstinence, the increased risk of CHD is reduced by half.

STROKE. Smokers are at increased risk for stroke. When a smoker quits, the risk drops to that of a nonsmoker. How long does that take? In studies completed so far, it’s ranged from five to 20 years.

CHRONIC OBSTRUCTIVE PULMONARY DISEASE. Called COPD for short, this includes lung diseases like emphysema. Smoking leads to COPD by greatly speeding up the decline in lung function that occurs as people age. A recent study followed middle-aged smokers who already had mild obstruction in their lungs. Within five years of quitting, however, they had slowed the rate of decline in their lung function to that of the average nonsmoker.

Quitting benefits everyone

The benefits of quitting smoking apply to everyone, including long-term smokers and those who are already ill. For example, according to a report by the Surgeon General, a healthy man in his early 60’s who gives up his pack-or-more-a-day habit reduces his risk of dying during the next 15 years by 10 percent.

Quitting isn’t easy, yet it’s the most important step a smoker can take to extend and enhance the quality of his or her life. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about designing a cessation program that will work for you.

Quitting benefits everyone