We already know the toll smoking can take on a our health. Women who smoke are at higher risk for stroke, cataracts, osteoporosis, early menopause, menstrual problems, and several different kinds of cancer. Now, a new study shows that smoking takes about 11 years off of a woman's life -- but if you quit smoking early enough, researchers have found, you could get most of that time back.
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According to study co-author Tim McAfee, director of the Office on Smoking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States.
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"There's the old saw that everyone knows smoking is bad for you," McAfee told the New York Times. "But this paints a much more dramatic picture of the horror of smoking. These are real people that are getting 10 years of life expectancy hacked off - and that's just on average."
The study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzed data from 113,752 women and 88,496 men who were interviewed between 1997 and 2004 for the United States National Health Interview Survey. The researchers looked at the rates and causes of death by the end of 2006, and found that people age 25 or older who smoked were three times more likely to have died by then, compared to participants who never smoked; 60 percent of the smokers who died suffered from diseases typically associated with smoking. The risk of death for women was much higher than previously assumed.
No surprise there. But the researchers also noted that people who quit smoking before they were 35 years old lived 10 years longer than those who didn't. Even those who waited until they were closer to 45 years old to quit benefitted -- they lived about nine years longer. And the lengthened life spans were the same regardless of the person's educational use, weight, or alcohol use.
"First, in terms of health benefits, it is never too late to quit," Dr. Steven A. Schroeder wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Second, the importance of smoking as a health hazard needs to be elevated. More women die of lung cancer than of breast cancer. But there is no 'race for the cure' for lung cancer, no brown ribbon, and no group analogous to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation."
"Because smoking has become a stigmatized behavior concentrated among persons of low social status, it risks becoming invisible to those who set health policies and research priorities," he continued. "Yet, the need for greater attention to the policies known to reduce the prevalence of smoking remains urgent."
Smoking rates have been on the decline since the 1960s, and modern cigarettes have far less tar than cigarettes did a generation ago. Until now, female smokers had lower mortality rates then men, but researchers didn't know whether it was because they smoked fewer cigarettes, took up smoking later in life, or had some biological difference that protected them. The latest study shows that the mortality rates are now about the same for men and women.
"This sort of puts the nail in the coffin around the idea that women might somehow be different or that they suffer fewer effects of smoking," McAfee said.
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