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Giving Up Smoking Can Extend a Woman's Life by 10 Years

An Oxford study took a closer look at the link between smoking and causes of death in women.

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A woman breaks a cigarette in half-- by Megan McCrea

The Gist

Anyone who has ever driven a car, ridden the bus, or watched TV has seen the ads. “Smoking kills.” “Quit smoking today!” “I Want YOU To Stop Smoking.” But just how important is quitting? If you stopped smoking, would it have a real effect on your health? Or did you seal your fate the day that you took your first drag?

A new study, published Online First in The Lancet today, provides keen insight into this question. The One Million Women Study, conducted by public health experts at Oxford University, found that smoking significantly increases a woman’s risk of death. It also found that quitting could extend her lifespan by ten years.

Over the course of the 15-year study, the participants who smoked died at nearly three times the rate of their nonsmoking peers. Among smokers, those who started smoking youngest and who smoked the most each day experienced the highest risk of death. Women who had quit smoking, however, significantly lowered their risk of dying from a smoking-related illness. The younger a woman was when she quit, the more she decreased her risk.

The Expert Take

Healthline talked to Dr. Rachel Huxley, an expert in cardiovascular epidemiology, to learn more.

“What makes the One Million Women Study distinct from previous [studies]–and superior for assessment…of the full hazards of prolonged smoking and the full benefits of cessation is [the fact] that the participants were among the first generation of women in the UK [in which] smoking was widespread in early adult life.” 

Thus, with the One Million Women Study, researchers followed the first generation of women who had smoked throughout their lives. This allowed the researchers to truly gauge the long-term effects of smoking on women. 

These results mirrored the results of past studies done on men. According to study co-author Professor Sir Richard Peto, “if women smoke like men, they die like men.” 

“This paper tells those who want to stop [smoking] that if they do manage to stop, they’ll gain a decade of life expectancy,” he explained in an interview with Healthline.

That’s great news. The trouble is that quitting is notoriously difficult. In fact, Peto notes that two-thirds of smokers in the US and UK say they wish that they didn’t smoke.

Dr. Stuart Finkelstein treats patients with all types of addiction. He explained in an interview with Healthline why nicotine is so difficult to give up. “Most people want to change [an addictive behavior] because of negative consequences. If you look at nicotine, it can take a long time—10, 20, 30 years—to experience negative consequences.”

Dr. Judy Rosenberg, a therapist who specializes in smoking cessation, recommends adopting a plan to tackle the challenge. She recommended in an interview with Healthline that people consider the potential challenges of quitting, such as the physical and chemical addiction, the urge to smoke, and relapse triggers. 

Furthermore, she notes that “people with mood disorders”—such as anxietydepression, and bipolar disorder—“often have a more difficult time quitting than their counterparts and, thus, require more support.” 

Ultimately, however, the difficulty is worth the risk. As cancer expert Dr. Mary Reid put it in a Healthline interview, “We are seldom confronted by a modifiable risk factor that can actually extend our lives—this is one of those moments when people can really do something to help themselves to live longer.”

Source and Method

Between 1996 and 2001, Oxford University researchers recruited 1.3 million British women (average age 55) and asked them to complete a lifestyle questionnaire. The women were asked whether they currently smoked, had smoked in the past, or had never smoked. The researchers asked the smokers how many cigarettes they smoked each day, and they asked the ex-smokers how long ago they had quit. The researchers followed these women through 2011, noting when a participant died and the cause of death. They then analyzed the data, adjusting for additional health and lifestyle factors such as age, body mass index, socioeconomic status, exercise habits, and alcohol intake. They used a regression model to see how smoking affected the participants’ risk of death.

The study found that women who smoked died at three times the rate of their nonsmoking peers. The smokers died much more frequently from smoking-related illnesses, such as chronic lung diseaselung cancerheart disease, and stroke. The researchers concluded that “two-thirds of all deaths of smokers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are caused by smoking.”

The women who had quit smoking seriously reduced their risk of death. The earlier in life a woman quit, the more she reduced her risk. Former smokers who had quit around age 50 avoided 66 percent of the increased risk of death caused by smoking. Those who quit around age 40 avoided 90 percent of the increased risk, and those who quit around age 30 avoided 97 percent of the increased risk of death caused by continued smoking.

Other Research

Many other studies have examined the effects of smoking (and smoking cessation) on mortality rates.

A Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Medical Association also analyzed the relationships between smoking, smoking cessation, and mortality. The study found that, by quitting smoking, women drastically reduced their risk of lung disease. 

2010 study published in Tobacco Control found that smoking cessation decreased the risk of death at different rates for different diseases. Smokers who quit experienced the greatest benefit when it came to coronary heart disease. Their risk was 61 percent lower than that of smokers.

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Tags: Global Health , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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