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Smoking's Damage Swift, Irreversible

Just 1 Cigarette Can Stiffen Arteries in Young Smokers, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 27, 2009 -- Cigarette smoking starts inflicting “very significant” damage on the arteries with the very first puffs taken by otherwise healthy young smokers, new research shows.

The damage worsens as time passes and is impossible to reverse, says researcher Stella Daskalopoulou, MD, of the McGill University Health Centre.

The study found that smoking just one cigarette increases the stiffness of the arteries in 18- to 30-year-old smokers by 25% after a treadmill exercise test. It was presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2009 in Edmonton, Alberta.

As arteries stiffen, she says, the heart must work harder, increasing the risk for heart disease or stroke.

“Our results are significant because they suggest that smoking just a few cigarettes a day impacts the health of the arteries,” Daskalopoulou says in a news release. “This was revealed very clearly when these young people were placed under physical stress, such as exercise.”

She tells WebMD that the study compared the arterial stiffness of 10 young smokers, who puffed five to six cigarettes a day, to 10 nonsmokers. The median age of the participants was 21 years. Researchers, who included R.J. Doonan and other medical students under her supervision, measured arterial stiffness at rest and after exercise.

Arterial stiffness in all participants was measured using a method called applanation tonometry.

An initial arterial stiffness measurement was performed at rest for each subject to establish a baseline measure for all the participants. Smokers were instructed not to smoke for 12 hours prior to the test.

After the first meeting, the smokers completed two more tests on different days. For one test, they smoked a single cigarette and then repeated a treadmill exercise test. For the other test, smokers were asked to chew a piece of nicotine gum prior to the exercise test. Daskalopoulou found that after exercise:

  • Arterial stiffness levels in nonsmokers dropped by 3.6%.
  • Arterial stiffness in smokers increased by 2.2%.
  • After one cigarette, it increased by 24.5% in the smokers.
  • After nicotine gum, stiffness increased by 12.6% in the smokers.

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