Smokers face nearly three times the risk of early death from heart disease and stroke compared to people who never smoked, according to new research that found smokers who began before age 15 had the highest risks.
Earlier research in Cuba found a link between childhood smoking and a higher risk for premature death overall. In this new study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association, investigators set out to determine if the findings applied in other populations. They used U.S. National Health Interview Survey data from 390,929 adults, ages 25 to 74, collected between 1997 and 2014.
The researchers were surprised at how consistent the findings were with other studies, “both in terms of the substantial risks associated with smoking and with the health benefits of quitting smoking,” lead study author Blake Thomson, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford in England, said in a news release.
“The age at which a person begins smoking is an important and often overlooked factor, and those who start smoking at a young age are at especially high risk of dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease. However, quitting can substantially reduce that risk, especially for those who quit at younger ages. Getting people to quit smoking remains one of the greatest health priorities globally,” he said.
The new research grouped participants by the age at which they began smoking. After adjusting for variables, such as age, education, alcohol consumption, region and race, researchers found the risk of premature death from heart disease or stroke was higher among the 19% of smokers who began between ages 10 and 14 and highest for the 2% of participants began smoking before age 10.
But the data held some hope. Those who quit smoking by the age of 40 reduced their excess risk of early death from cardiovascular disease by about 90%.
“Preventing the next generation from smoking can save lives, but we must also emphasize that quitting smoking can save lives now, and in the years to come,” Thomson said. “Simply put, health policies should aim to prevent young people from smoking and should clearly communicate the benefits of quitting to those who do smoke, ideally as young as possible, and before the onset of serious illness.”
Smoking continues to cause an estimated 100,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease every year in the U.S. Currently, there are about 25 million people who smoke daily, including 5 million who became regular smokers before age 15. This new data precedes the explosion of vaping and e-cigarette use among U.S. teens.
Thomson said more research is needed to clear up how prolonged smoking from childhood affects cardiovascular risk. Future research, he said, also should examine the association between early smoking initiation and death from other causes, such as respiratory disease and cancer, and in other populations.
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