Fewer Americans are smoking these days. That’s good news! But many older adults have smoked for their whole lives. Is it possible for them to kick the habit? A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that even people who have smoked for many years could quit with the right support. Said study author Margarete Kulik, Ph.D., “This shows that with effective tobacco control policies, even hard-core smokers will soften over time.”
Many seniors grew up at a time when the health risks of smoking were underplayed. Smokers were allowed to light up at the theater, in college classrooms, and even during airplane flights. Leaf through an old magazine and you might find cigarette ads featuring celebrities, sports figures, and even doctors.
Today, we know better. Cigarette packages carry warnings about the health damage caused by smoking, such as cancer, emphysema and heart disease. And those diseases are only the tip of the iceberg. Consider these recent studies linking smoking to:
Dementia. Kaiser Permanente researchers found that heavy smoking in midlife increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 157 percent, and the risk of vascular dementia by 172 percent. The study tracked over 21,000 people for over 20 years. Research scientist Rachel Whitmer said, “This study shows that the brain is not immune to the long-term consequences of heavy smoking.”
Pain. The American Pain Society reported that smokers are much more likely to experience muscle and joint pain. University of Kentucky researchers noted, “Smoking-induced coughing increases abdominal pressure and back pain and nicotine may decrease pain thresholds by sensitizing pain receptors.”
Eye damage. Age is the No. 1 risk factor for macular degeneration, but University of California Los Angeles experts showed that smoking is the second greatest risk factor. While we can’t do anything about growing older, study author Dr. Anne Coleman noted, “Even older people’s eyes will benefit from kicking the habit.” And a recent study published in JAMA Ophthalmology showed that smoking almost doubles the risk of developing cataracts. It also raises the risk of glaucoma.
Osteoporosis. According to the National Institutes of Health, there is a direct relationship between tobacco use and decreased bone strength. Smoking raises the risk of fractures, and slows healing of a broken bone.
Rising healthcare costs. If quitting for your own good isn’t enough, consider that smoking is harmful for our economy. The American Medical Association reported that expenses directly connected to death and disease caused by smoking costs the U.S. economy over $300 billion each year. Medicare estimates that 10 percent of its budget goes toward treating smoking-related illness.
It’s Never Too Late
But if a senior has smoked for years, does it even do any good to quit now? Is the damage done? There is good news. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) points to the benefits of quitting, even after 30 or more years of smoking:
At present, seniors are less likely than young people to enter a smoking cessation program. But the good news is that when they do, they are more likely to be successful at kicking the habit.
November 17 is the Great American Smokeout. The American Cancer Society offers tools and information to help people of every age quit the habit, and shares tips for family members who want to support the smoking cessation efforts of a loved one.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The Lung Association offers the online Freedom from Smoking program.
Visit SmokeFree.gov for smoking cessation resources, information and smartphone apps from the U.S. government.