Healthy Living News


Study: Women Smokers Die 10 Years Earlier

by Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School

Cigarette smoking robs women of more than 10 years of life, on average, a long-term study of British women has found. But quitting early greatly reduces that risk -- up to 97% for women who quit by age 30. The numbers come from the Million Women Study, which started in the late 1990s. Women were 50 to 65 when the study began. Therefore, they were part of the generation of women most likely to smoke. Smoking for women peaked in the 1960s. Women filled out questionnaires when the study began. They showed that 20% were smokers, 28% ex-smokers and 52% had never smoked. Women answered the same questions 3 and 8 years later. During 12 years of follow-up, about 6% of the women died. Women still smoking 3 years after the study began were 3 times as likely to die as women who never smoked. Even light smokers (less than half a pack per day) were twice as likely to die as those who never smoked. But quitting -- the younger the better -- extended lives. For women who quit by 40, the risk of early death was reduced 90%. The journal Lancet published the study. HealthDay News and MedPage Today wrote about it October 27.

What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

The number of women smokers in the United States and United Kingdom started to rise during World War II. And the number kept rising until it peaked in the mid-1960s. Trends in smoking-related diseases followed similar patterns to what were seen in men.

But at ages before menopause, women are somewhat less affected by heart disease than men are. So it was possible that women smokers might have a lower death rate related to smoking. It appears from this new study that the years of life lost because of smoking are similar in both sexes.

This study of nearly 1.2 million women living in the United Kingdom shows:

  • How dramatically a woman shortens her life by continuing to smoke
  • How many years of life can be saved by if a woman quits smoking before the age of 40, and especially before age 30

The researchers came up with lots of statistics by comparing smoking habits with bad health events and death rates among women in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Some of the more startling findings:

  • Of the women who died and still smoked, two-thirds of them died because they smoked.
  • If a woman stops smoking before age 40, she can reduce her risk of a smoking-related death by 90%.
  • If a woman stops smoking before age 30, she can reduce her risk of a smoking-related death by 97%.
  • By quitting at age 30, a woman has nearly the same life expectancy as a nonsmoker.
  • Even a few cigarettes per day increases the risk of smoking-related diseases and death from smoking.
  • On average, a woman gains an extra 11 years of life by not smoking compared with a woman who continues to smoke.

What Changes Can I Make Now?

Quitting for good is a process. It starts when you accept that you personally will be injured by smoking and/or that secondhand smoke is bad for people around you.

Only about 6% of those who try to quit smoking succeed for more than a month. If that's been your experience, don't be too hard on yourself. The average person makes 5 to 7 quit attempts before stopping for good.

Smokers who want to quit face a difficult challenge. Tobacco use may be the toughest unhealthy habit to break. But don't get discouraged. You can quit. In fact, in the United States today, there are more ex-smokers than smokers.

Trying to quit cold turkey can't hurt you. But it can be unpleasant. If it doesn't work, don't look at this as failure. It is actually your first step in quitting forever.

Most people need help to quit smoking for good. Take advantage of stop-smoking programs. You can usually find free ones. Accept support from your family and friends.

Nicotine replacement therapy can help you get through the cravings. You have several choices. You can buy patches, gums, nasal sprays, inhalers and lozenges. Using nicotine replacement therapy doubles your chances of quitting successfully.

Get help from your doctor. Medicines also can help you quit for good. The two that work the best are:

  • Bupropion (Zyban, Wellbutrin and generic versions)
  • Varenicline (Chantix)

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

The most effective way to discourage smoking is to continue to raise the tax on cigarettes. I suspect this will happen.

You also can expect to see a new public health campaign aimed at women smokers.

Categories: Women's Health

Back to: Healthy Living