Study: Women Who Quit Smoking by Age 40 Avoid 90% of Death Risk

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The benefits of quitting are greater than we thought.

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Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

PROBLEM: The generation born circa the 1940s was the first to grow up in a world where smoking, for women, was a common habit. They entered adulthood just when cigarettes were reaching their peak popularity. Some, but not all, quit once the connection between smoking and cigarettes became clear. It is only now, as they age, that we are finally able to see the full long-term impact of smoking on disease and mortality in women.

METHODOLOGY: Data was culled from the Million Women Study, which has followed women in the United Kingdom over the age of 50 since the late 1990s. In the part relevant to this study, the women were initially asked whether they smoked and, if so, how often. Three and then 8 years later, they were asked whether they continued to smoke. Their mortality rates were assessed after 12 years. Of 1.2 million women, 6 percent had died, 20 percent were current smokers, 28 percent had quit, and 52 percent had never started.

RESULTS: Among the many outcomes analyzed, the authors found:

  • Smokers had a shorter lifespan (by 11 years) than never-smokers.
  • The mortality rate of light smokers, who average one cigarette per day, was double that of non-smokers.
  • Smokers who passed away in their 50s, 60s, and 70s did so due to smoking-related illness two-thirds of the time.

But their most intriguing findings involved quitters:

  • Those who quit for good between the ages of 25 and 34 reduced their risk of death to only 1.05 times that of never-smokers.
  • Even those who didn't quit until they were 44 only had 1.20 times greater mortality.
  • Smokers had a 21.4 times increased risk of dying from lung cancer, but those who quit by age 34 and 44 reduced their risk to 1.84 and 3.34, respectively.

IMPLICATIONS: Now that we know better, these findings should go a long way toward convincing people that it's never too late to quit smoking. "Although the hazards of smoking until age 40 and then stopping are substantial," explain the authors, "the hazards of continuing are ten times greater."

The full study, "The 21st century hazards of smoking and benefits of stopping: A prospective study of one million women in the UK" is published in The Lancet .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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