Ask an Expert: Benefits of smoking cessation at any age

Q: "My 65-year-old father has been smoking for decades and refuses to quit. He knows smoking causes cancer but says quitting will do no good because the damage is already done. Would quitting now do anything to reduce his risk?"

Answer from John R. Handy, Jr., M.D., co-director, Providence Thoracic Oncology Program

Each of the four leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease – is directly linked to cigarette smoking. The good news is that anyone, regardless of age, can significantly reduce the risk of these and other serious health conditions by quitting smoking. Benefits of quitting also include lower blood pressure, more energy and improved breathing and circulation.

Improvements in health can occur quickly in the months and years following that last cigarette. Heart health and lung function improve the most rapidly. Just one year after quitting, a former smoker’s risk of coronary heart disease drops to one-half that of a continuing smoker. Improvements in lung function also come quickly; the incidence of bronchitis and progression of emphysema often begin to ease within the first 12 months.

The decline in lung cancer risk for former smokers is equally dramatic, though it tends to materialize more gradually over time. Continuing smokers who smoke one or more packs per day are 20 times more likely to develop lung cancer than individuals who have never smoked. Even smokers of less than one pack per day have a 10 times greater risk of lung cancer than a never-smoker.

A pack-per-day smoker who quits will have a year-to-year reduction in his or her risk of developing lung cancer beginning in the second year after quitting. After 10 to 15 years, risk levels out at approximately four times that of lifelong non-smokers. Those who formerly consumed less than a pack a day eventually lower their risk to approximately 1.6 times that of lifelong non-smokers. If lung cancer is diagnosed, those who have stopped smoking have a much better outcome with treatment than those who continue to smoke.

Many resources are available to help people who are ready to quit smoking. The best success is seen with a combination of behavior modification and medication. Your father’s health provider can help him choose a smoking cessation program that is suited to his individual needs and goals.

November 2003

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