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The number of Americans who smoke has fallen to 14.9 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—a big drop from 1997, when 25 percent of Americans smoked.
Sadly, however, smoking still kills about half a million Americans annually, and it isn’t just the obvious smoking diseases (like lung cancer) that account for these deaths. In fact, more illnesses than you might imagine can be termed “smoking diseases,” and your vulnerability to them varies depending on your age. If you have COPD signs and symptoms, your COPD life expectancy will increase if you quit smoking.
Smoking Diseases and Age
More younger Americans smoke—about 16 percent, compared with about 8 percent of adults age 65 and older—but older adults are at particular risk for smoking diseases because they typically have smoked for longer (an average of 40 years). Most smoking diseases strike during older age, and older smokers with a long history of tobacco use face significantly increased health risks as they continue to grow older.
Studies have demonstrated that smokers underestimate their risks of developing smoking diseases, and a few studies have found that smokers age 65 and older have even lower risk perceptions than younger smokers. The disparity in risk perception, experts believe, is due at least in part to the fact that smoking was viewed as acceptable a generation ago.
But it isn’t all negative—studies also suggest that older smokers may be slightly more successful at quitting than younger adults.
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How Smoking Diseases Take Hold
Smoking harms the body because inhaled smoke contains many inflammatory substances—such as tar, and dangerous metals (including arsenic and lead)—that damage the body’s cells to the extent they may become cancerous. Smoking increases the risk of at least 14 cancers, including cancer of the breast, lung, larynx, esophagus, mouth, throat, bladder, pancreas, kidney, liver, stomach, bowel, cervix, and ovaries.
Smoke contains carbon monoxide, which displaces oxygen in the blood, and nicotine, which constricts the blood vessels, raising your blood pressure (a major risk factor for stroke), and forcing your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body. It lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which is vital for transporting cholesterol to the liver to be processed for excretion, and elevates LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which can build up on the walls of your arteries, narrowing and potentially blocking them, and impeding blood flow in the process.
These negative effects on your cardiovascular system mean that heart disease, diabetes, and kidney disease can be categorized as smoking diseases.
The overall results can be seen in the figures: Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of disease and death in the U.S., and is linked to 20 percent of all deaths, and at least 30 percent of all cancer deaths. Of these, most deaths that can be linked to smoking diseases occur among people age 65 and older. Men in this age group who smoke are twice as likely to die from a stroke, and women smokers are about one and a half times as likely to die from a stroke than their nonsmoking counterparts.
The risk of dying from a heart attack is 60 percent higher for smokers, and smokers are more than twice as likely as nonsmokers to develop dementia of any kind, including Alzheimer’s disease. They also have two to three times the risk of developing cataracts, a leading cause of blindness and visual loss. And of course, COPD signs and symptoms fall into the category of smoking diseases.
Why Is It So Hard to Quit Smoking?
About 70 percent of smokers say they want to quit, and about 40 percent try to quit each year. Only 4 to 7 percent, however, succeed without help, even though they’re aware of their risk for smoking diseases. This is partly because the nicotine contained in cigarettes is addictive, and partly because there is a strong psychological aspect to smoking, since it often is associated with social activities.
When you try to quit you will suffer from physical and mental withdrawal symptoms that can include headaches, fatigue and tightness in the chest, as well as irritability, depression and difficulty concentrating. But you also might find that your social life suffers as you try to avoid situations in which you mat be tempted to smoke.
Withdrawal symptoms can last several weeks, but will lessen every day that you remain smoke-free. If you doubt your willpower, consider using medications—research has shown they can double the chances of success. Your doctor can prescribe drugs that reduce the nicotine craving and you also can opt for nicotine replacement gum, nasal spray, or patches.
Medicare covers smoking and tobacco use cessation counseling for beneficiaries who have smoking-related illnesses such as a COPD diagnosis, or who are taking medications that are affected by tobacco use. Medicare’s prescription drug benefit also covers smoking cessation treatments prescribed by a physician (over-the-counter treatments, such as nicotine patches or gum, are not covered).
Boost your odds of quitting smoking, and help yourself avoid smoking diseases by:
- Setting a quit date and talking to your doctor about medications that may help you.
- Throwing cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays into the garbage.
- Avoiding situations that may trigger an urge to smoke, and planning in other habits or activities you can engage in instead.
- Stocking up on other things to put in your mouth rather than cigarettes, such as peppermints, carrot sticks, toothpicks, and cinnamon sticks.
- Writing down your reasons for wanting to quit smoking (a list of smoking diseases is a good incentive), and pinning the list where you can see it as a constant reminder.
Originally published in June 2016 and updated.