A new study of elderly smokers provides the strongest evidence yet that it's never too late to quit, its authors say. The new report found that over a five-year period, healthy elderly people who smoke are twice as likely to die as are those who never smoked. The risk for those who gave up cigarettes falls between the two extremes.
The deaths among the elderly smokers result from cancer and heart attacks, the major health hazards of cigarettes.
"Older people who smoke can still do their health a lot of good by quitting," said Dr. Andrea Z. LaCroix Brigham, who directed the study. "A lot of older people believe that once you've smoked 40 or 50 years, you have nothing to gain from quitting. That's clearly not true."
The new work challenges the widely held belief that by the time smokers reach old age, their habit has already taken its toll, and those who survive this long are somehow immune to the dangers of cigarettes.
LaCroix, a researcher at the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound in Seattle, reported the results in today's New England Journal of Medicine. Among the other findings:
Among men and women, former smokers were about as likely as those who never smoked to die from heart disease. Women who had kicked the habit also faced about the same cancer risk as those who never smoked, while men who gave up smoking still had about a 50 percent higher risk of dying from cancer.
Even among those over age 75, smoking was associated with a 20 percent increase in the death rate.