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Even Light Smoking Doubles the Risk of Heart Attack in Young Women


WebMD Health News

Dec. 13, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Young women who smoke just one cigarette a day are at an increased risk of having a heart attack, according to a team of British researchers. The investigators studied the smoking habits of about 450 women 16 to 44 years old who had each suffered a heart attack within the past six years. The findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Heart.

The researchers found that women smoking one to five cigarettes a day more than doubled their risk for a heart attack. And those with a two-pack-a-day habit saw their odds jump to almost 75 times that of nonsmokers. Overall, the researchers found that women who smoked were 10 times more likely to have a heart attack than women who did not.

And the situation was much worse in women who smoked and had other cardiovascular risk factors -- such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, or angina. The researchers found that nonsmoking women with three of these risk factors had less chance of getting a heart attack than a light-to-moderate smoker with just one of the risk factors.

"This study does not surprise me at all," says Elizabeth Ross, MD, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association and author of the book "Healing the Female Heart." She says, "One thing we know, in the United States ... heart disease is the third leading cause of death in women 25 to 44 years old. Twice as many die from heart disease as from AIDS. And one of the major things putting women at risk for a heart attack is smoking. "

Ross says that the take-home message of the study is that heart attacks can strike young women -- and they can be fatal. She says it's a timely warning because more and more young women are taking up smoking -- including a fair number of high school students.

"The effect of cigarette smoking on the risk of cancer is dose-related," Ross says -- meaning that the amount smoked is a big factor in determining whether smokers will develop cancer. "But the [amount] doesn't correlate with the risk of a heart attack," she says, "because smoking causes spasms of blood vessels and acceleration of blood clotting," both fairly immediate effects.

On the flip side, about as instantaneous are the beneficial effects smokers get from quitting. "If you quit smoking today, your risk of a heart attack dramatically decreases," Ross says.

One surprise in the study is that heart attack potential did not increase as a result of combining smoking with oral contraceptive use. Ross says that may be because few of the study subjects were using oral contraceptives, or because the ones they did use contained low or no amounts of estrogen -- the contraceptive ingredient implicated in cardiac problems in smokers.

Vital Information:

  • Young women who smoke up to five cigarettes a day have a twofold risk of having a heart attack.
  • The risk of heart attack in young women who smoke two packs a day is 75 times greater than it is in nonsmoking young women.
  • Although the effects of smoking on the cardiovascular system are immediate, quitting the habit also quickly reduces the risk of heart attack.

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