Home Am I at Risk? Smoking & Your Heart

Smoking & Your Heart

How common is smoking in women?

A smoker is anyone who has smoked 100 cigarettes in his or her lifetime and who still smokes one or more cigarettes a day. More than 20 million American women smoke. In the 1970s, smoking levels began to decline in US adults, but the decline among women slowed down in the 1990s. Nearly 80% of smokers begin before age 18. Currently, about 25% of girls in grades 9 to 12 smoke.

Levels of Smoking Among Women
Source: American Heart Association Heart Disease & Stroke Statistics
People in the US who smoke 44.3 million
Women in the US who smoke 20.2 million
Women Who Smoke By Race
White 20%
Black or African American 17%
Hispanic or Latina* 11%
Asian* 5%
American Indian/Alaska Native* 29%
Figures for adults 18 years and older, 2004; *1999-2001


How does smoking affect my heart?
Smoking damages your heart in several ways:

  1. The chemicals in cigarettes damage the walls of the arteries around your heart. This causes the buildup of fatty plaque that can harden and narrow the arteries. Smoking can also trigger these fatty plaques to burst and block the artery, causing a heart attack.
  2. Smoking makes the blood more likely to thicken and clot, increasing your risk of a heart attack.
  3. Smoking may trigger coronary spasms where the blood vessels of the heart are pinched or narrowed, causing chest pain or a heart attack.
  4. The nicotine in cigarettes stimulates the release of chemicals that can raise your blood pressure.
  5. Smokers tend to have high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides—two types of blood fat that increase your risk of heart disease. Smoking also lowers HDL (good) cholesterol.

Does smoking increase my risk of heart attack or dying from heart disease?

A study that followed nearly 120,000 women nurses aged 30 to 55 for 12 years found that those who smoked were 4 times more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease than nonsmokers. The risks were even higher for women who started smoking before the age of 15—they were 9 times more likely to suffer heart problems. Smoking appears to be particularly harmful for young women. A combined analysis of 14 studies of heart disease patients showed that more than 70% of the women 45 years or younger were smokers.

Is smoking more harmful to women than men?

Smoking appears to increase a woman’s risk of heart disease more so than a man’s. In one study, smoking increased the risk of having a heart attack 57% more in women than in men. In general, women—especially younger women—have a lower risk of heart disease than men. Smoking seems to cancel out this natural protection.

Is light smoking harmful?

You don’t have to be a heavy smoker to be at risk; even light smoking is harmful. In the Nurses’ Health Study mentioned earlier, smoking just 1 to 4 cigarettes a day doubled the risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease.

Will quitting smoking help my heart?

Yes. Within 2 years of quitting, your risk of heart disease is cut by one third. After 10 to 14 cigarette-free years, your risk of heart disease is the same as a woman who never smoked. If you have already had a heart attack or been diagnosed with heart disease, it is even more important to stop smoking. Within 5 years of stopping , your risk of dying is cut by 36% compared with heart patients who continue to smoke.

Will cutting back help my heart?

Cutting back on the number of cigarettes you smoke does not seem to lower your risk of heart disease. This is because smoking even a few cigarettes a day is harmful to the heart. Some of the damage that smoking causes occurs the minute you light up—the blood thickens and the arteries stiffen. The Surgeon General’s Report on the Health Consequences of Smoking notes that cigarettes with lower yields of tar and nicotine have not been shown to lower your risk of heart disease and should not be considered lower-risk alternatives to regular cigarettes.

How else is smoking bad for your health?

Smoking also increases your risk of some cancers, particularly lung cancer. It is the major cause of respiratory problems, including emphysema. If you smoke, you are more likely to suffer a stroke or experience clots in the blood vessels of the legs (peripheral arterial disease), making it painful to walk. Women who smoke have a higher risk of osteoporosis (bone loss) and they may go through the menopause at a younger age than nonsmokers. Smoking is also linked to difficulty getting pregnant and problems during pregnancy such as having a premature baby.

Next: Quitting Smoking


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