Smoking's Damage Swift, Irreversible
Just 1 Cigarette Can Stiffen Arteries in Young Smokers, Study Shows
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
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
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
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
- 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.
What the study means, she tells WebMD, is that even light smoking in
otherwise healthy people damages the arteries, compromising the ability to cope
with physical stress, such as climbing stairs.
“The people tested were young and healthy,” she tells WebMD. “We found there
was no significant difference at rest between smokers and nonsmokers, but then
we got them to exercise, and the difference was clear.”
Cherry Wongtrakool, a pulmonary specialist at the Emory University School of
Medicine in Atlanta, tells WebMD there’s no doubt that even one
or two cigarettes impairs blood vessel function.
The question is, “how much of that change is going to be persistent,” which
she says isn’t answered by the study.