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Stopping smoking at any age can add years to your life

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Smoker's lungs

Great news! It is never too late to quit smoking, and researchers have new data to prove it. This is according to a study published in 2013 by the New England Journal of Medicine. Even at the age of 64, kicking the habit can add four years to a person's life and quitting before age 34 can increase life expectancy by a decade.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am not a smoker. It is not that I have NEVER had a smoke. There were the occasional times in college however I never liked it.As an asthmatic with severe allergies as a child I knew that it was not a good habit to pick up. I have several friends however that have struggled over the years to stop. Some have been successful. Others have not, I witnessed my stepfather's last cigarette while he stood outside the hospital before going in for his cardiac cath. Little did he know that his cardiac cath would show severe coronary artery disease that required open heart right away. He did not have another one after that. He quit cold turkey. I know it was not easy for him however I was, and still am, very proud of his decision,

During a recent study, one of two large-scale surveys in the New England Journal of Medicine, they saw significant benefits for those who quit no matter how old. Using the National Health Interview Survey, the researchers followed 113,752 women and 88,496 men in the U.S. between 1997 and 2004. They categorized them as smokers, former smokers and non-smokers. Former smokers were held to a five-year rule in order to eliminate those who were already in declining health.
The conclusion was that if you quit smoking between ages 25-34 you added an additional ten years to your life. If you quit between35-44 you added nine. Between ages 45-54 an additional six years were added to your life and between ages 55-64 an additional 4 years were added to your life expectancy.

This is in addition to what was already known which is that your body makes attempts to recover almost immediately after you stop and the benefits grow the longer you don’t smoke.

According to the American Heart Association and the U.S. surgeon general, this is how your body starts to recover:

  • In your first 20 minutes after quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate recover.
  • After 12 hours of smoke-free living, your carbon monoxide levels return to normal.
  • After two weeks, your circulation and lung function begin to improve.
  • After one month, your ability to have clear and deeper breathing gradually returns.
  • One year after quitting smoking, a person’s risk of coronary heart disease is reduced by half.
  • Five years after quitting smoking, a person’s risk of stroke is similar to that of a nonsmoker.
  • After 10 years of smoke-free living, your lung cancer death rate is about half that of a person who has continued to smoke. The risk of other cancers, such as throat, mouth, esophagus, bladder, cervix and pancreas decreases as well.

The number one risk of continuing to smoke remains lung cancer.

Predicting Lung Cancer Risk

No one can predict who will develop lung cancer or not. In fact there is a growing population of individuals that have never smoked yet develop lung cancer. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center however has developed a Lung Cancer Risk Assessment Tool. With this tool above, you enter information about your age and smoking habits and it calculates your average risk of developing lung cancer in the next 10 years. It is for people between the ages of 50 and 75, who smoked between 10 and 60 cigarettes daily for a period of 25 and 55 years. It is not a perfect predictor however it gives you a moment to pause for sure.

Symptoms of lung cancer
There is no specific test that can diagnose lung cancer. Mammograms can detect breast cancer. An elevated PSA can detect prostate cancer. With lung cancer it is more subjective. In fact, 85% of lung cancer is found symptomatically.

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The problem with lung cancer is that by the time the symptoms get severe enough that the individual seeks help and it is diagnosed it is usually in an advanced stage.

The symptoms of lung cancer depend upon many factors including the type, location and extent of its involvement. Here are some of the more common symptoms.

Persistent cough
A persistent cough that will not go away. This is often confused with other smoking symptoms such as COPD and bronchitis.

Dyspnea (Shortness of breath)
Again, shortness of breath is difficult to differentiate from COPD and bronchitis.

Productive cough
Especially is the cough produces blood. There are other conditions that can cause this as well including TB and traumatic coughing.

Chest pain or tightness in the chest

This can occur with heart disease as well as with pneumonia. However if the lung cancer can grows into the chest wall it can cause pain and inflammation.

Voice changes
A change in a person’s voice such as hoarseness can be a symptom of lung cancer. It can also however be a symptom of throat cancer and sometimes chronic bronchitis will result in this.

Wheezing can be caused by COPD, bronchitis and pneumonia. It can also be a symptom of partial obstruction your airway by a tumor.

Take away message: The message needs to get out to young and old smokers alike that there's a ray of hope. It's never too late to quit! In addition, the earlier you can detect cancer the better your chances of survival. It is therefore imperative to always follow up on any change in cough, breathing patterns and chest pain.

New England Journal of Medicine

American Heart Association