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Is it ever too late to quit smoking?

We all know smoking is bad for us. According to the CDC, cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. Almost half a million Americans die every year from smoking-related diseases.

Data from the American Lung Association shows that less people smoke today than ever before, but about 14% of the population are still current smokers. That’s down from over 40% in 1965. Men are more likely to smoke than women, and people 25-64 have the highest rates of smokers. Smoking is also more common among people from low-income households, who have anxiety disorders, or are LGBTQ+.

What does smoking do to your body?

man smoking a cigarette

Smoking is most often associated with lung cancer. People who smoke are 15-30% more likely to develop this cancer than non-smokers. However the chances of anyone developing lung cancer are pretty slim, about 6% over a lifetime. Just under a fifth of all lung cancer cases are diagnosed in non-smokers.

For every person who dies of a smoking-related disease like lung cancer, the CDC estimates there are 30 living with chronic illnesses caused by smoking. These include heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and rheumatoid arthritis. Smoking can suppress your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to a wide range of diseases, including pneumonia, eye diseases, and diabetes.

How to quit smoking

person refusing to smoke a cigarette

The good news for smokers is there are tons of resources available to help you quit. Some people manage to quit cold turkey — simply stopping and never smoking again. However this method has a low success rate because of the physical effects of withdrawal.

Nicotine replacement therapies help keep cravings at bay and make quitting smoking a lot easier for many people. Nicotine patches, gum, sprays, inhalers, and lozenges are all available either from your doctor or pharmacy, or at most large grocery stores. Using nicotine replacement therapy to quit smoking increases the chances of success by about 55%.

Two prescription drugs can also help people to quit. Varenicline (also called Chantix) blocks your brain from responding to nicotine. This makes smoking less pleasurable and also reduces withdrawal cravings. Smokers begin taking varenicline up to a month before they plan to quit smoking, and slowly increase the dose to reduce their nicotine dependence. Most people take varenicline for about 12 weeks, but can take it for longer if they feel it necessary.

The other prescription medication available is Bupropion (also called Zyban, Wellbutrin, or Aplenzin). Just like varenicline, bupropion helps reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal by blocking the chemicals your brain produces when it craves nicotine. Smokers begin taking bupropion 1-2 weeks before quitting smoking, and usually stay on the medication for 7-12 weeks.

Is it ever too late to quit smoking?

person snapping cigarette in half

Unless you’re literally on your deathbed, it’s not too late to quit smoking. Studies of older adults who have been lifelong smokers have found there are dramatic benefits to doing so. Older adults are less likely to attempt to quit smoking, but they are more successful when they try.

People aged 60-69 who quit smoking can add an extra 10% to their life expectancy. Old age is a risk factor for many diseases exacerbated by smoking, including heart disease and diabetes. Smoking in old age increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 30-40%. Quitting smoking reduces those risks.

The positive effects of quitting smoking begin almost immediately. An hour after smoking, blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. After 12 hours, blood carbon monoxide levels have decreased. After just one day, the risk of developing (or worsening) heart disease begins to fall. Within a month, lung function starts to improve.

Around nine months after quitting, the lungs are almost totally healed and instances of lung infections drop dramatically. One year after quitting, the risk of developing coronary heart disease has fallen by more than 50%.

These factors continue to improve year on year. The risk from heart disease, lung cancer, and other complications, continue to fall long after quitting smoking. After five years, arteries and blood vessels that were narrowed by toxins in cigarettes have widened again. This reduces the risk of clots and strokes.

A decade after quitting, former smokers have reduced their chances of developing lung cancer by half. And 15 years later, the risk of developing heart disease is the same as for a non-smoker. Twenty years after smoking, the risk of dying from a smoking-related disease is the same as for someone who has never smoked.

Final thoughts

Even for people in advanced old age, the positive effects of quitting smoking can be felt immediately. It is never too late to quit smoking, even if you already suffer from a smoking-related disease. Quitting at any point can improve outcomes and lower the risk of developing or worsening life-shortening conditions.

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