DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My 50-year-old husband has been a smoker for 30 years. He says that quitting now won’t do much good. Are there still health benefits of quitting smoking after decades of being a regular smoker?
ANSWER: Your husband will definitely reap significant benefits if he quits smoking — even after 30 years. The health advantages he’ll enjoy as a nonsmoker will start accumulating almost immediately after he stops smoking. Although breaking a smoking habit can be hard, he doesn’t have to do it alone. Various effective treatments and therapies can help your husband stop smoking.
Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease in the world. Eighty to ninety percent of lung cancer deaths are the result of smoking. Smoking raises the risk for a number of other cancers, too, accounting for about 30 percent of all cancer-related deaths. Smoking also can lead to a wide array of additional health problems, such as coronary artery disease, heart disease, heart attacks, strokes and chronic lung disease.
If your husband stops smoking, the change will have a big impact on his health. For example, less than an hour after he quits smoking, his heart rate will go down to a normal level. About 12 hours after the last cigarette, the carbon monoxide level in his blood will return to normal. Within two to three weeks of leaving smoking behind, your husband’s risk of having a heart attack will start to drop.
Shortness of breath and coughing associated with smoking usually goes away within about nine months. Ability to engage in physical activity improves, too, and people often feel they have more endurance for physical activity after they stop smoking. In addition, many people who quit smoking experience an improvement in their senses of smell and taste.
Over time, the health benefits will continue to grow. A year after quitting, your husband’s risk of coronary heart disease will be half that of when he was smoking. Five years out, his risk of stroke will be reduced to that of a nonsmoker. Ten years after quitting, his risk of lung cancer will be dramatically lower than when he was smoking, and the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus, bladder, kidney, and pancreas will go down.
Fifteen years past smoking, the overall health risks for someone who has smoked are basically the same as they would have been if that individual had never smoked at all. Given the chance, the body is quite remarkable in its ability to repair and restore itself. If permitted a long enough time smoke-free, the body essentially reverts to that of a nonsmoker.
Research clearly shows that, overall, quitting smoking adds years to a person’s life. Depending on how old a person is when he or she quits, as well as the frequency and duration of the smoking, it could increase life span by two to ten extra years. And it’s not just adding time; it’s adding quality. Many people who quit smoking enjoy better health longer than smokers do.
Although the health benefits are significant and compelling, quitting smoking can be a challenge. The nicotine in cigarettes is addictive. Breaking a smoking habit is hard, especially if someone tries to do it on his or her own. The best way to quit is to seek help from a health care provider or counselor trained as a tobacco treatment specialist. Those professionals can guide your husband through behavioral therapy and offer approved medication treatments that can help him stop smoking for good.
The bottom line is: No matter how old you are and no matter how long you’ve smoked, it’s never too late to quit. Your body will thank you for it. — Dr. J. Taylor Hays, Nicotine Dependence Center, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota