June 8, 2004 -- Former smokers can expect to live as long and healthfully as nonsmokers if they manage to quit for at least 15 years before they turn age 50, suggests new research.
"Smoking is harmful at any age, but if you stop smoking before age 35 you may still do pretty well in terms of living longer and having a better quality of life as you reach middle age," says researcher Truls Ostbye, MD, PhD, of Duke University School of Medicine. "By quitting for at least 15 years prior to age 50, you may be able to regain your health as well as people who never smoked."
After analyzing data on some 21,000 Americans 50 and older, he and Duke colleague Donald Taylor, PhD, estimate that people who quit for at least 15 years before reaching middle age are likely to regain the two years usually lost to smoking -- living as long and as well as those who never smoked.
Early Quitting Provides Long-Term Success
That's not to say that it's safe to smoke until age 35, but rather these findings stress the importance of quitting earlier.
"If you wait longer than that to quit, there are certainly benefits compared to not quitting, but you may not be able to catch up to your peers who never smoked at all," Ostbye tells WebMD. "Those who had stopped smoking for at least 15 years were able to catch up."
His study -- published in the June issue of the journal Health Services Research -- was based on information mined from two ongoing surveys in which participants are interviewed every two years by researchers at the University of Michigan: One involving 12,600 men and women between ages 50 and 60, and another on those older than age 70.
In both surveys, participants were questioned on their smoking histories and the perceived effects smoking had on their health and quality of life, and in some cases, their death and disease records were examined. Overall, former smokers typically lived longer and reported better health and quality of life than those who continued to smoke. But when they quit, this translated to living longer and better by anywhere from several months to several years.
Suffering Overrides Death as Motivator
An interesting footnote from Ostbye's study, done with fellow Duke researcher Donald Taylor, PhD: "In doing focus groups with these people, my co-author discovered that people worry less about dying earlier from smoking than they do about being disabled or in a poor state of health because of smoking," says Ostbye. "So perhaps the public health measures shouldn't be on death resulting from smoking, but rather on being able to live a healthier life from not smoking."
That's important because smokers of different ages typically have different motivations for wanting to quit.
"We find that older people are usually more successful in quitting, probably because they have tried more over time, and we know there's sort of a learning process that goes on -- people who quit for a piece of time and then relapse are more likely to successfully quit the next time out," says Doug Jorenby, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and director of clinical services for its Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.
Usually, Quitting Comes Too Late
"But with all the progress made in last couple of decades in helping people quit, the single best motivator is having a serious health problem caused by smoking," he tells WebMD. "Younger people in their 20s or early 30s are more likely to be motivated by the cost of smoking and the social impact smoking has on them; they feel like outcasts, and frankly, smoking becomes inconvenient."
That's why he believes Ostbye's study is important. If anything, he says, the life-threatening aspects of smoking can turn people fatalistic, and they figure that they'll just die anyway.
"We have to be better at educating people on the tremendous ability the body has to heal itself when given the chance," says Jorenby. "That's why you love to see people who are smart and quit in their 20s or early 30s because not only do they minimize their exposure, but they have the maximum ability to heal any damage smoking has done to them at that point."