When people think of the hazards of smoking, lung cancer or emphysema typically comes to mind. The truth is smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and takes a particularly hard toll on the heart, causing coronary heart disease and stroke, the first and third leading causes of death in the United States. In fact, it takes far fewer cigarettes to cause heart disease than to cause cancer.
When you smoke, the toxic ingredients in cigarettes damage your body in several ways—mutating genes, weakening blood vessels, altering blood consistency and diminishing cell function. For example, nicotine speeds heart rate, narrows arteries and makes blood sticky. Other chemicals in cigarettes bind to the hemoglobin in red blood cells, reducing their ability to carry
oxygen. Smoking deteriorates artery linings and promotes fat and plaque deposits. As a result, smoking causes:
- decreased blood flow
- diminished oxygen to the heart
- higher blood pressure
- faster heart rate
- increased blood clotting
- decreased HDL (good) cholesterol
Smoking is a major risk factor for death from coronary heart disease, also causing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), abdominal aortic aneurysm, sudden cardiac death, congestive heart failure and peripheral vascular disease. In addition, smoking increases your risk for diabetes and diminishes your tolerance for exercise, two more key factors in heart disease. Smokers are twice as likely as nonsmokers to suffer a stroke and two to four times more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Women who smoke and use certain types of hormone therapy increase their risk several times more.
If you don’t smoke but live with or work among smokers, you’re still at risk. Nonsmokers regularly exposed to secondhand smoke nearly double their risk for heart attack.
Smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. No matter how many years you’ve smoked, it’s never too late to stop. Don’t bother with light or low-tar cigarettes; they’re no better than regular versions and you’ll end up smoking more of them. The only safe choice is to quit completely. Talk to your healthcare provider about finding a smoking cessation program for you.