Why It’s Never Too Late to Quit Smoking

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If you’ve been a lifelong smoker, you might be thinking, Why quit now when the damage is already done? But a recent study finds that even the oldest smokers can reap significant benefits from kicking the habit.

Based on a review of previous studies, three researchers from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg determined that smokers over the age of 60 could reduce their risk of premature death 28% by quitting.

The review included 17 studies from the U.S., China, Australia, Japan, England, Spain and France that tracked anywhere from 863 to 877,243 people for follow-up periods of three to 50 years. Overall, the study found that current smokers had the highest absolute mortality rates in all studies: smokers over the age of 60 were 83% more likely to die, compared with people who never smoked. In comparison, former smokers over the age of 60 were 34% more likely to die than never-smokers. That’s a 28% decline in death risk between current smokers and former smokers.

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In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Tai Hing Lam of the University of Hong Kong further calculated reductions in risk by age: quitting smoking reduced premature death risk by 21% for people in their 60s, by 27% for people in their 70s, and by 24% for those in their 80s.

The risk of death “notably decreases with time since smoking cessation even at older age,” the authors write. In other words, the longer it had been since people quit, the lower their risk of premature death.

“Even older people who smoked for a lifetime without negative health consequences should be encouraged and supported to quit smoking,” the authors write.

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“Many older smokers misbelieve that they are too old to quit or too old to benefit from quitting. Because of reverse causality and from seeing deaths of old friends who had quit recently, some misbelieve that quitting could be harmful,” Dr. Lam writes. “A simple, direct, strong and evidence-based warning is needed.”

Lam advises physicians to help their patients quit smoking by referring to the acronym, AWARD:

Ask about smoking
Warn smoking patients by saying, “If you continue to smoke, your chance of dying from smoking-induced diseases (such as cancer, heart diseases, stroke and respiratory and many other serious diseases) is 50% (67% for the very young; 40% for the very old).”
Advise, “If you quit now, your risk will be greatly reduced (by 25% at old age, and by much more before age 40 years).”
Refer to a cessation clinic or hotline
Do it again until they quit. If you have helped 2 smokers quit, you have saved at least 1 life.

The study and editorial are published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

PHOTOS: Cigarette Warnings Around the World