James always gives an emphatic “no” when health professionals ask if he is a smoker. He has been a happy and smug non-smoker for longer than 30 years, and he sometimes tends to forget that he once smoked a pipe and even a few cigarettes and cigars. I didn’t inhale, he tells himself. I never smoked very often and I was never addicted. When I decided to start exercising, I simply decided not to smoke any more.
James’ decision was a smart one, and it probably tacked about 10 years onto his lifespan. But does his cloudy past as a light and intermittent smoker make any difference to his present and future health?
The word often given to current smokers is that it’s never too late to reap the benefits. And that’s generally true. Within a few hours, carbon monoxide levels in the blood decline while heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. Within a few months, an ex-smoker can expect improved circulation and lung function. Does that mean your body is forgiving you for all the toxins you have exposed it to over the years? Well, maybe not completely.
Ex-smokers are less likely than current ones to die of a smoking-related disease such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders or heart disease. But, like those who have never smoked, they still get those diseases and die.
In one study of 600 patients referred for lung cancer surgery, 16 percent had been smoke-free for 20 to 30 years, and 21 percen; smoke-free for 10 to 20 years. Only 11 percent were current smokers.
Probably more important than the number of years since you stopped smoking is the age at which you quit. According to a study published in The Lancet, women who quit smoking before age 40 avoided 90 percent of the risk of early death while those who quit before 30 avoided 97 percent.