I recently had a 65-year-old patient look at me incredulously as I suggested that he should quit smoking. “I’ve been smoking for 50 years,” he replied indignantly. “Stopping now won’t help anything. I’m too old for it to do me any good.”
This interaction made me think of a slide I have in one the presentations I give on how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. It is a timeline, produced by the American Cancer Society, that details how quickly various health benefits accrue once a smoker finally kicks the habit. The information is based on numerous scientific studies that evaluate how quickly (or slowly) the human body heals after a person stops bombarding the lungs with toxic carcinogens and pollutants.
Let’s say you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day (this seems to be roughly what I hear from most active smokers) and that you’ve been doing it for many years. What would happen to you if were to quit today? How long would it take before your body starts to reap the benefits from your burst of self-mastery?
Monday morning, 8 a.m., May 30th – You’re finally tired of the cost, stench, and inconvenience of smoking in today’s environment. Your family has harassed you enough and you decide to toss the carton and retire the lighter. You take a final drag and commit yourself to a life of abstinence.
Monday morning, 8:20 a.m., May 30th – Your blood pressure drops several points and the small arterioles in the arm and legs relax to their full diameter as the nicotine begins to fade from your bloodstream. You congratulate yourself on your first 20 minutes of success (and wonder how you’ll make it through the rest of the day).
Monday afternoon, 4 p.m., May 30th – Oxygen molecules begin to replace toxic carbon monoxide attached to the hemoglobin in your blood and your muscles and organs begin to enjoy relief from relative suffocation.
Tuesday morning, 8 a.m., May 31st – Your risk of heart attack has begun to decrease after only one day. Your risk of going nuts has unfortunately gone up. You discover the merits of chewing gum.
Wednesday, June 1st – Your bacon smells particularly savory this morning as your damaged olfactory nerves begin to heal and your sense of smell improves. You’re sure this is a good thing until you get to work and realize your coworkers don’t shower as often as they should.
July 1st – The circulation to your legs has improved dramatically and you find it easier to walk. Your breathing is already getting better and you notice you cough less than you have in years. Your morning walks improve now that you can finally keep pace with your 14-year-old Dachshund.
October – Your airways have regained the ability to effectively clear mucus and you realize you’ve stopped hacking up stuff that looks like something you’d find stuck to the floor of a movie theater. Football season is more enjoyable now that you’re able to make it to the top of Memorial Stadium without having to stop 5 times to pant. You become short of breath again in the last 2 minutes of another Nebraska-Texas game (the outcome isn’t that important—die-hard fans will just call it another “rebuilding year”) but this is to be expected.
May 2012 – You pay a visit to one of your old smoking buddies who sits in the ICU recovering from a heart attack. At this point you can take solace in the fact that your risk of heart attack has been cut in half after only one year. You try to cajole your friend into quitting without sounding like all the people who piously lectured you just 12 months ago.
2021 – You celebrate the 10-year mark in your efforts to remain tobacco-free by not going to the oncologist’s office. Thanks to your lifestyle change you’ve enjoyed a precipitous drop in risk of cancer of the lung, mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney and pancreas. Instead, you take in a beautiful day at Memorial Stadium for another “rebuilding year.”
2026 – Go find all those people who harassed you mercilessly for cigarette habit and thank them for encouraging you to quit. You proudly report that your risk of heart attack and stroke are now back to the same level as someone who never smoked. You realize that the last 15 years have been some of the healthiest that you’ve lived. Even though you’re older, you’re probably in better shape than you’ve been in a long time. You can now celebrate your years of tobacco abstinence by treating yourself to a new car with the $27,000 that you’ve saved by not buying a pack of cigarettes every day for the last decade and a half.
If you’re a smoker and you think you’ve got 15 more years of life in you (or just 15 months, for that matter) then it’s worth your while to quit. Young people who smoke have the most to gain by stopping now—and the most to lose by continuing their habit. Regardless of your age, one thing is clear: it’s never too late to quit.