Arteries Can Heal if Smokers Quit

Healthnotes Newswire (April 26, 2007)—Everyone knows that cigarette smoking causes cardiovascular disease, but now there is evidence that, over time, damage to the arteries may repair itself in people who quit.

Cigarette smoking is one of the most important avoidable causes of cardiovascular disease. A smoker’s heart attack risk is markedly higher than a nonsmoker’s, and the likelihood goes up with the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years of smoking.

One of the ways that smoking appears to cause heart disease is by increasing the stiffness in the arteries. As a result, blood flow through the arteries, including the coronary arteries (those that supply the heart muscle), is diminished, and the pressure of each pulse is increased. Smoking even one cigarette has been found to immediately increase arterial stiffness, and chronic smoking has been shown to cause a lasting change.

There is evidence that some of the damage caused by smoking is reversible. Smokers who have had a heart attack can reduce their risk of another by as much as 50% by quitting.

The new study, published in Hypertension, included 554 people with untreated high blood pressure (hypertension). Nonsmokers had less arterial stiffness than both ex-smokers and smokers, and ex-smokers had less stiffness than smokers.

The researchers found that the length of time since quitting smoking was closely reflected in the health of the arteries: those who had quit within the past year still had arterial stiffness similar to smokers, but those who had quit ten or more years ago had arteries that were less stiff and resembled those of nonsmokers. People who had quit smoking between one and ten years ago showed intermediate degrees of arterial stiffness.

These findings add to the evidence that smoking increases arterial stiffness, an important component of cardiovascular disease. They also suggest that quitting smoking can allow arterial damage to be reversed, although it may take a decade or more for arteries to regain their full flexibility.

The study’s authors note the importance of their findings for smokers with hypertension. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to show that, in untreated hypertensive patients, a population characterized by already stiff vessels, chronic smoking further increases arterial stiffness.”

Furthermore, since blood pressure and arterial stiffness are not directly linked, the researchers suggest that the combined effect of hypertension and smoking may be especially dangerous. “This highlights the importance of avoidance of smoking, and the great need to promote smoking cessation in hypertensive patients who continue to smoke, as reduction in arterial stiffness may still be possible.”

(Hypertension 2007;49:1–5)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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