Harvard Health Letter

In Brief: Smokers: The formers versus the nevers

In Brief

Smokers: The formers versus the nevers

Former smokers now outnumber current ones in the United States, and, thankfully, one of the rewards for giving up the nasty habit is reduced risk for many smoking-related diseases. But the question has been by how much do the risks go down, and how fast. Findings published in the May 7, 2008, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association suggest that former smokers do eventually catch up to never smokers, even when it comes to lung cancer.

The Harvard researchers who conducted the analysis compared the mortality rates of current, former, and never-smokers in the Nurses' Health Study. Their findings about heart attack and stroke risk agreed with what others have found: the risks go down pretty fast. Five years after her last cigarette, a former smoker's risk of dying from a heart attack was about 60% less than if she were still smoking, and risk of dying from stroke fell by roughly 40%. And after about 20 years, her risk was down to the same level as the never-smokers.

But research has suggested that it takes longer for the lungs to recover from a tobacco habit, which makes sense because the lungs come into direct contact with tobacco's carcinogens. Previous studies have found that even 20 years after quitting, former smokers' risk of coming down with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer hovers slightly above that of their never-smoking counterparts. This study, though, found that the COPD risk fell to the never-smokers' level after 20 years and that the lung cancer risk did so after 30. That's a long time to wait, but it's certainly something worth waiting for.

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