One surefire tip for a long and healthy life

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Sometimes it seems that every day offers a new, contradictory health finding. One day screening for prostate cancer is recommended; the next it’s not. One day the hot new superfood is acai berries. The next it’s dark chocolate, red wine, or fatty fish. Just about every new diet plan or exercise regime raises doubts about effectiveness or safety. And yet there’s one lifestyle tip that’s been proven time and time again to improve health across the board and to add years to your expected life span: Don’t smoke.

John Van Hasselt/Corbis

John Van Hasselt/Corbis

Yes, you’ve heard this one before. But today, since it seems that every day brings a new health bulletin, it can be tough to distinguish between minor medical curiosities and more robust, consistently proven results. Long-term cigarette smoking cuts life span, on average, by somewhere between 6.5 and 10 years, depending on whose calculations you believe. That’s simply not a difference you’re likely to make up by doing yoga and drinking plenty of green tea. Smoking remains the No. 1 cause of preventable death in America. For large parts of the 20th century, smoking was the main reason that U.S. women were living longer than U.S. men. Even people who are just very light smokers, consuming only 1 – 4 cigarettes per day, still seem to be at higher risk than non-smokers of heart disease and cancer, and they die younger.

Of course smokers now know about many risks of smoking — especially the risk of lung cancer. In fact, many even over-estimate smokers’ lung-cancer risk. 
But survey data also suggest that most smokers don’t feel these risks apply to their own lives, believing that they are somehow less at risk than other smokers are.
 A survey by Boston researchers in the late 1990s, for example, found that even among people smoking more than 40 cigarettes a day, fewer than half believed that they, personally, were at greater-than-average risk for cancer or heart attack (two major classes of smoking-related death). In the same survey, among smokers with diagnosed hypertension or angina, again, fewer than half felt that they themselves were at heightened heart-attack risk. We humans aren’t always very good at assessing risk. We’re tantalized by possibilities, not probabilities, and so we tend to assume that rare cases of the guy who smoked three packs a day into his 90s, or the guy who never smoked ever and got lung cancer anyway, are just as relevant to our own situation as the well-known fact that smoking is bad for you.  Unfortunately, this can lead to less reasonable decisions than we intended.

Quitting is not easy. But there is help to be had, and free help at that. The health benefits of quitting are immediate, according to research compiled by the American Cancer Society: The level of carbon monoxide in your blood will return to normal in just 12 hours, and within two to three weeks you’ll have improved circulation and lung function. Long-term, the benefits are even greater. Smoking has been linked to so many different health problems. (To name just 20: stroke, coronary heart disease, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, bladder cancer, stomach cancer, sudden cardiac death, abdominal aortic aneurysm, delayed wound healing, pneumonia, gum disease, stomach ulcers, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, infertility among women, pregnancy ending in stillbirth, cancer of the pharynx, cancer of the larynx, pancreatic cancer, cervical cancer—and this list could have been longer.) Many smokers, especially younger smokers, say that they would prefer to smoke and die young than live to old age anyway. But smoking-related diseases are almost all things that we consider to be old people’s diseases. Smokers just die from them sooner.

So next time you see some half-baked study conclusion on, say, the health benefits of couscous, or a commercial for anti-aging creams, don’t forget to put that news in perspective. Most scientific study results were never intended by their authors to be taken as incontrovertible truths — more as clues about how the body might work. But the evidence on smoking is overwhelming. Decades of consistent, accumulating results all point to the same conclusion. If you want one simple health trick that really does make a difference, there’s no contest. Get rid of your cigarettes.