Health Risks of an Ex-Smoker?

I’ve been a smoker for many years but recently quit. Is there anything I can do to prevent paying the price for smoking for so many years and to avoid weight gain?

– May 14, 2013

First, let me congratulate you for giving up smoking. That was the single most important thing you could do for your health. Just by quitting you have reduced your risks of heart disease and lung cancer and added years to your life. While it has been estimated that smoking cuts at least 10 years off an individual’s lifespan, a new study from Canada shows that if you quit smoking before age 40, you won’t lose all those years and are likely to have as long a life as you would have had if you had never smoked. Even older smokers who quit will see a benefit in terms of longevity, the Canadian research indicates.

Published in the January 24, 2013 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the study was based on examinations of the health records of 16,000 people in the United States who had died but had reported smoking earlier in life. It compared them with the records of people with comparable histories who never smoked. The researchers found that individuals who never smoked were about twice as likely to live to age 80 as smokers. But the big surprises came when the investigators analyzed the lifespans of smokers who quit. They found that those who gave up cigarettes between the ages of 35 and 44 gained back about nine of the 10 years they would have lost if they continued smoking. Smokers who quit between ages 45 and 54 got back six years and those who quit between 55 and 64 regained four.

In terms of health concerns, the study showed that the former smokers retained a risk of lung cancer, but that it was much smaller than it would have been if they had continued to smoke. The added risk of heart attack from smoking disappeared over time after smokers quit.

Another study, in Germany, followed 8,807 men and women between the ages of 50 and 74 for up to 10 years and found that those who quit smoking, even after age 50, saw a 40 percent reduction in the risk of heart attack and stroke within five years. It also showed that smokers have more than twice the risk of cardiovascular diseases as nonsmokers and are affected at a much younger age. For example, a 60-year-old smoker has the same risk of a heart attack as a 79-year-old nonsmoker and the same risk of stroke as a 69-year-old nonsmoker.

If you’re concerned that giving up smoking might lead to weight gain, emphasize fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains and healthy sources of protein in your diet. Avoid foods made with flour and added sugar as much as possible. You can also combat weight gain by drinking at least eight glasses of water a day and by regularly practicing a relaxation technique such as deep breathing, yoga, or visualization. If you haven’t been exercising, try to fit 30 minutes of walking into your daily schedule at least five times a week. If you already exercise regularly, add an extra half-hour to your weekly total. Exercise not only burns calories to minimize weight gain, but it will also help reduce any stress you’re feeling as a result of not smoking.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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