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Tips to help older smokers quit their addiction

June 25, 2015

How many times have you heard the phrase: “It’s never too late?”

The same applies to quitting smoking, at whatever age.

“It’s hard to quit smoking because nicotine is so addictive, with most people needing several attempts before successfully stopping smoking,” said Dr. Douglas Johnson of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Baystate Medical Center.

Although the rates of smoking have declined in recent years for all age groups, nearly 10% of adults over 65 — almost 4 million older Americans — continue to smoke.

Most smokers want to quit, and it’s a fact that most older smokers have tried unsuccessfully or resumed smoking. Why is it so hard?

“It’s addictive. Some find it easier to quit than others and have already done so,” said Dr. Johnson.

Smoking Causes Lung Cancer and Other Illnesses

Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable, premature death and illness in the U.S., responsible for almost a half-million deaths each year. In addition to lung and other cancers, smoking can cause heart disease, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD. The recent Surgeon General’s report, The Health Consequences of Smoking: 50 Years of Progress, provides new data that links smoking to bone disease, cataracts, diabetes, macular degeneration, and erectile dysfunction.

Effects and Benefits of Quitting Smoking

Research shows that people who quit smoking, regardless of their age, are less likely to die from smoking-related illness than those who continue to smoke. The good news is that when you put your last cigarette down, the benefits begin immediately, noted Dr. Johnson.

  • Within the first 20 minutes, your heart rate begins to drop back to normal levels.
  • Within 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide levels in your blood drop.
  • 24 hours after quitting your risk of heart attack decreases.
  • After a couple of weeks your lung functions will improve.

According to Dr. Johnson, many of the patients he sees as a pulmonary physician have lung problems directly caused by smoking.

“Patients may be very short of breath with COPD, need oxygen, be on a ventilator, or have lung cancer. Other patients have heart disease, including heart attacks due to their smoking. These problems can ruin people’s lives while they are still living, knock decades off a life, and be tragic for one’s family. Quitting smoking is usually the best thing one can do to improve your health,” said Dr. Johnson.

First step in quitting: decide you want to quit

“Some quit ‘cold turkey’, but because nicotine is so addictive, many find that nicotine supplements such as the patch or gum, or medications such as Chantix, help them to quit. It can be harder to quit if someone else in your house smokes, so I encourage everyone in the house to try quitting together,” said Dr. Johnson.

For some additional assistance in beating your addiction to nicotine, the National Institutes of Health has released a new web resource to help older adults stop smoking. “Quitting Smoking for Older Adults" offers videos, worksheets, interactive features, strategies, quizzes, and more for older smokers who want to quit or are thinking of quitting.

Dr. Johnson was co-author of an American Heart Association position paper on secondhand smoke published in the journal Circulation, and also published a research study in the journal Thorax showing that secondhand smoke worsens lung function.

”Remember, your efforts to quit smoking will not only improve your health, but will protect family members and others around you from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke Baystate Medical Center. Secondhand smoke is especially dangerous for pregnant women, babies and children,” said Dr. Johnson, noting it can contribute to a number of afflictions from cancer and heart disease to breathing problems and even make it harder for someone to have a baby.