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How Soon Do Smokers Benefit from Quitting?

A careful study shows that smokers benefit from quitting. It may be more than a decade, though, before their risk of heart attacks drops to normal.

Ask any health professional what you should do to stay healthy, and you’ll hear the advice: Don’t smoke! If you do smoke, quit! It should come as no surprise to learn that heavy smokers are more likely to experience cardiovascular disease as well as emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a wide range of cancers. This information has been public knowledge for more than half a century. There is general agreement that smokers benefit from quitting.

How Much Do Smokers Benefit from Quitting?

Many people who smoke find it difficult to give up tobacco. Nicotine addiction can be hard to overcome. So just how much difference does it make for smokers to quit? And how long does it take for their cardiovascular risk to drop to baseline?

Is Five Years Enough Time?

Most cardiovascular risk calculators assume that five years after quitting, a former smoker is at pretty much the same cardiovascular risk as people who never smoked. However, a new study published in JAMA suggests the story is not quite so simple (JAMA, Aug. 20, 2019). Although smokers benefit from quitting, the time frame may be quite extended.

To determine the link between quitting and subsequent cardiovascular health, researchers analyzed data from participants in the Framingham Heart Study. These 8770 individuals were followed up for more than two decades.

The investigators found that people who quit smoking did have a lower risk of heart attacks, strokes or heart failure after five years than people who continued to smoke. However, their risk was still considerably higher than those who never smoked. It took about 15 years before their risk was as low as that of non-smokers. In summary, unquestionably smokers benefit from quitting. Sooner is better, though, as it may take more than a decade to get the full value of not smoking.

How Will You Quit Smoking?

If your doctor offers a prescription for varenicline (Chantix), you may well want to consider trying it. However, be sure you are well-informed about the potential risks as well as the benefits before you start taking it.

Keep in mind that Chantix is not the only option to help you take this important step. Our late friend Tom Ferguson, MD, author of the No-Nag, No-Guilt, Do-It-Your-Own-Way Guide to Quitting Smoking, would say that you should do what you think is best for you, on your own timeline. If you don’t succeed the first time, keep trying. After all, the research shows that smokers benefit from quitting more than anything else they do for their health. It also shows that people may need to quit several times before they can maintain non-smoking status. Good luck!

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Duncan MS et al, "Association of smoking cessation with subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease." JAMA, Aug. 20, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.10298
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