People experiment with smoking cigarettes for different reasons. Unfortunate for those who continue to smoke, experts agree that living long and healthy requires kicking this habit. Because of the process of inhaling smoke into the lungs, most people consider respiratory illness to be the major risk of cigarette smoking. However, those supporting the tobacco industry must know that smoking is also one of the primary causes of cardiovascular disease.
Accounting for nearly half a million annual deaths, the American Heart Association claims that cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Cigarette smoke poses such an imminent danger to the cardiovascular system because it causes atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of fatty substances in the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is the process in which deposits of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and other materials build up in the inner lining of an artery. This buildup is called plaque and hardens the arteries progressively with age. The progressive consequences of plaque buildup, include:
- Deterioration of an artery’s lining
- Thickening of arterial walls
- Blocking the flow of blood through the artery
Atherosclerosis can cause coronary artery disease, where the arteries that supply blood to the heart become severely narrowed, decreasing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Extra strain on the heart may result in chest pain and other symptoms. When one or more of the coronary arteries are completely blocked, a heart attack may occur.
Atherosclerosis can also cause peripheral artery disease, where the arteries carrying blood to the arms and legs have impaired circulation. Those with peripheral artery disease may experience intermittent claudication, the painful cramping of the leg muscles when walking. Additionally, peripheral artery disease greatly increases a person’s risk for a stroke.
Smoking Causes Atherosclerosis
Although atherosclerosis is typically a slow, complex disease, tobacco smoke greatly worsens atherosclerosis and speeds its development. Cigarettes cause atherosclerosis for a variety of reasons:
- Cholesterol – The toxins in tobacco smoke lower a person’s high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the good cholesterol) while raising levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (the bad cholesterol). A higher ratio of low-density lipoproteins results in a greater fat content in the blood.
- Nicotine and Carbon Monoxide – Components of cigarette smoke, both nicotine and carbon monoxide, damage the artery’s endothelium. Instead of a smooth surface for blood to glide within, a damaged endothelium attracts plaque to fasten to its sides and build up along arterial walls.
- Narrows Arteries – Smoking causes arteries already narrowed by atherosclerosis to constrict, further decreasing the amount of blood that can pass through the vessels.
- Sticky Blood – By making the blood’s platelets stickier, tobacco use increases its tendency to clot, ultimately increasing the likelihood of completely blocking an artery.
Upon adding up all of the reasons that smoking causes or worsens atherosclerosis, it is clear why smokers have such a high risk of suffering from a stroke or heart attack.
As provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association, these eight facts should further encourage smokers to seek help in quitting:
- Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the leading cause of death caused by smoking.
- Strokes represent the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and are commonly caused by smoking.
- The risk of stroke decreases steadily after smoking cessation, with former smokers having the same stroke risk as non-smokers after 5 to 15 years.
- Cigarette smoking has been associated with sudden cardiac death of all types in both men and women.
- A person’s risk of heart attack greatly increases with the number of cigarettes he or she smokes and the longer he or she has smoked.
- Smokers who quit between ages 35-39 add an average of 6-9 years to their lives.
- Smokers who quit between ages 65-69 increase their life expectancy by 1-4 years.
- Quitting smoking reduces the risk of repeat heart attacks and death from heart disease by at least 50 percent.
Because cigarette smoke causes atherosclerosis, it automatically puts those addicted to it at high risk for a heart attack or stroke. Nobody claims that quitting smoking is easy; in fact, it is just the opposite. However, kicking this habit is the single most important step a smoker can take to reduce his or her risk of heart disease – a commitment that has living a long and healthy life as its ultimate reward.