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Straight Talk from 'Dr. Stephanie' - June 2012

  Smoking: It's Not Just About the Lungs  
 En español  

Stephanie Coulter, MDEarlier this year, a study was published in The Lancet about heart disease in women who smoke. It found, relative to non-smokers, female smokers have a 25% higher risk of heart disease than do male smokers.

Although researchers are not quite sure the exact reason why women smokers are at greater risk than men, the number still speaks for itself. 

What does smoking do to the heart?  

Most of us know smoking causes an increased risk of lung cancer and breathing problems, but many women don’t realize it also can be devastating on the heart. The nicotine, tar, and carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke negatively affect cholesterol levels, increase heart rate, and can lead to fatty plaque in the arteries. Even people who are light smokers or only smoke on occasion damage their heart and blood vessels. 

If you smoke, expect a huge increase in your risk for:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Blood clots
  • Heart attack
  • Peripheral vascular disease (disease in the vessels that supply blood to the arms and legs)
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm or AAA (a balloon-like bulge forming in the aorta)

If you are a woman who uses birth control pills or who has diabetes, do not smoke. Your risk of heart attack and stroke is even greater.

You also have to consider your loved ones who are at greater risk for developing complications from secondhand smoke including heart and blood vessel diseases, lower “good” cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure, even if they never smoke themselves.

The benefits of quitting  

The good news is that, even if you’ve been a heavy smoker most of your life, quitting now can reduce your risk of heart disease caused by your smoking by 80%. In fact, one year after quitting, your added risk of coronary artery disease is cut in half. And that’s not all. Expect these other benefits when you quit:
  • You are likely to live longer and gain an average of 4 to 9 years of life.
  • You will have more energy and will be able to exercise longer.
  • Your sense of taste and smell will return.
  • Your skin and teeth will look better.
  • You immediately reduce your risk of lung and throat cancer, asthma, COPD, cataracts, and gum disease.
  • You no longer put your loved ones at risk for secondhand smoke inhalation. 

Millions have quit, and so can you.   

Since 2002, the number of former U.S. smokers has exceeded the number of current smokers. That means that millions of women have quit, and so can you!

If you want to quit, you must make a plan and stick to it. Here are a few steps to get you started:
  1. Pick a quit date. Some smokers like to pick a day that means something to them, such as a birthday or anniversary.
  2. Remove them from your space. Remove cigarettes and other tobacco products from your home, car, and workplace. Also, get rid of lighters, matches, ashtrays, and any other smoking related accessories.
  3. Know your triggers. Be aware of the situations that make you want to smoke. Then, avoid those triggers or think of alternatives. Most people trying to quit find that the urge to smoke passes after a few minutes.
  4. Tell others. Tell your family, friends, and coworkers that you are quitting, and ask those who smoke not to smoke around you. Research also shows that joining a support group can increase your success rate for quitting. 
  5. Talk your doctor. There are many products out there that can help you quit so talk to your doctor about your options. Be sure to tell your doctor if you are on any medications because nicotine often changes the way medicines work and they may need to be tweaked.
You may experience setbacks, but remember that living a smoke-free life should be exactly that: for life. Acknowledge if you slip, refocus, and get back on track. You can do it!

For even more detailed information about smoking, the heart, and how to change your health for the better, visit the smoking information page in THI’s Heart Information Center.

Until next time!
Stephanie Coulter, MD, Director of the Center for Women's Heart & Vascular Health
Stephanie Coulter, MD

For additional ways all women can take care of their hearts, visit the Straight Talk archives on the Texas Heart Institute website.

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