March 13 (Reuters) - People who have quit smoking have a lower chance of suffering a heart attack or stroke than current smokers, even if they put on a few extra kilos in the process, according to an international study.
The long-term cardiovascular benefits of kicking the smoking habit have been well-established, but researchers whose report appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that it's been unclear how the weight gain that often accompanies quitting fits into the picture.
"Weight gain is a real concern for smokers who want to quit and this might not only be an aesthetic one," said Carole Clair, from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"Overweight and obesity are risk factors for coronary heart disease, and it has been a concern that especially among people already at risk for (cardiovascular disease), weight gain following smoking cessation might cancel or at least decrease the benefits of smoking cessation," she added.
Smokers' heart rate and other body functions are revved up by nicotine, which may cause them to burn slightly more calories than nonsmoker - so when they quit, their metabolisms slow down. Recent quitters tend to compensate for nicotine withdrawal by snacking, according to Clair - hence the weight gain.
She and her colleagues analyzed data from a long-term study of 3,251 people who took health surveys every four years between 1984 and 2011. At the onset, just under one-third of those participants were smokers.
Over an average of 25 years, 631 of all participants suffered a heart attack or stroke, or developed heart failure or another type of cardiovascular disease.
Both people who said they'd quit smoking since their last check-in, and longer-term quitters, were about half as likely to have heart problems as those who were still using cigarettes.
Quitters gained an average of 2.7 to 3.6 kilograms (6 to 8 lbs) after kicking the habit, consistent with past research. But quit-related weight gain had no clear effect on cardiovascular health, the team wrote.
"It's an understandable concern - might that weight gain offset the benefits that are known for quitting smoking?" said Michael Fiore from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, who co-wrote a commentary published with the study.
"This is a good news story. You can be assured that if you quit smoking, even with a little bit of weight gain, you're going to achieve important health benefits."
He and colleague Timothy Baker pointed out in their commentary that the new study couldn't zero in on the small proportion of people who gain more than 9 kg (20 lbs) during a quit attempt. It's possible those former smokers might still be at risk for health problems tied to weight gain.
Even if adding a few kilos seems to be okay heart-wise, Fiore said there are steps quitters can take to try to keep off extra weight.
"We know that nicotine is an appetite suppressant, and when people quit smoking they often have an urge to eat more food," he said. "What we need to do is ensure that the foods we're eating are low-fat, low-calories foods."
In addition, building a little more exercise into daily routines can also blunt weight gain, while nicotine gums or lozenges might also help keep weight gain under control. http://bit.ly/JjFzqx (Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)
Also on HuffPost:
You'll Be Less Anxious
Even though smokers may believe taking a long drag on a cigarette can help to calm nerves, a British study published earlier this year suggests that <em>quitting</em> can actually decrease anxiety more over the long-term. "People who achieve abstinence experience a <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2013/01/02/smoking-quit-anxiety.html">marked reduction in anxiety</a> whereas those who fail to quit experience a modest increase in the long term," researchers wrote in the British Journal of Psychiatry study, as reported by CBC News. Similarly, a 2010 study in the journal Addiction showed that <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/06/17/us-smoking-idUSTRE65G0CX20100617">perceived stress decreased</a> for people who quit smoking for a year after hospitalization for heart disease, Reuters reported.
Your Mouth Will Thank You
Quitting the habit could dramatically <a href="http://consumer.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=661533">decrease your risk of dental problems</a> like cavities and gum disease, and even more dangerous conditions like oral cancer, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HealthDay reported that <a href="http://consumer.healthday.com/Article.asp?AID=661533">compared with former smokers</a>, smokers have a 1.5-times higher risk of developing at least three oral health conditions.
Your Sex Life Will Be Better
Here's a bedroom-related reason to quit smoking: studies have suggested a link between smoking and decreased sex drives for both men <em>and</em> women. Studies published in 2008 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine showed that nicotine can affect even <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17971108">nonsmoking men's</a> and <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18331269">women's sexual arousal</a>. And if that's not enough to convince you, well, there's also <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2011/09/15/guys-quitting-smoking-makes-it-bigger-really/">this</a>.
You'll Save Your Skin
If you want your skin to be at its best, then you're better off quitting cigarettes. WebMD points out that smoking <a href="http://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/ss/slideshow-ways-smoking-affects-looks">affects skin tone</a>, promotes sagginess and, of course, causes those wrinkles around the lip area. However, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery notes that just a month-and-a-half after <a href="http://www.surgery.org/consumers/plastic-surgery-news-briefs/skin-quit-smoking-1031403">quitting smoking</a>, your skin will already begin to look better.
You'll Have More Locks
If you love your hair, maybe it's time to put the cigarettes down. Research has linked smoking with an increased risk of male pattern baldness. BBC News reported in 2007 on a Archives of Dermatology study, showing even after taking into account other hair-loss risk factors like age and race, <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5413382.stm">heavy smoking</a> (at least 20 cigarettes daily) raised the risk of baldness. And a 2011 study showed that smoking, stress, drinking and genes were all<a href="http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/hair-loss/news/20110923/divorce-heavy-drinking-smoking-linked-to-hair-loss"> risk factors for baldness</a>, WebMD reported.
Your Mood Will Improve
Here's a pretty good benefit: Stopping smoking could <a href="http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2010/12/smoking">make you a happier person</a>, according to research from Brown University. Researchers there found that smokers were <a href="http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2010/12/smoking">never happier</a> than when they were quitting smoking, even if they went back to smoking afterward. According to a <a href="http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2010/12/smoking">news release</a>: <blockquote> The most illustrative — and somewhat tragic — subjects were the ones who only quit temporarily. Their moods were clearly brightest at the checkups when they were abstinent. After going back to smoking, their mood darkened, in some cases to higher levels of sadness than before.</blockquote>
You'll Have More Birthdays
Stopping smoking may <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/women-stop-smoking-live-10-years-longer_n_2011804.html">help women live a decade longer</a> than they would have if they had continued lighting up, according to a 2012 study in The Lancet. Researchers also found that the more the women smoked, the higher their risk of premature death, with even "light" smokers (those who smoked just one to nine cigarettes a day) having a doubled risk of death compared with non-smokers. "If women smoke like men, they die like men -- but, whether they are men or women, smokers who stop before reaching middle age will on average <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-10/l-soa102312.php">gain about an extra ten years of life</a>," study researcher Professor Sir Richard Peto, of the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
You'll Improve Your Pregnancy Chances
If you're trying to conceive, one of the best things you can do is to quit smoking, research shows. NBC News reported that women smokers have a 60 percent <a href="http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/16874634/ns/today-today_health/t/trying-conceive-quit-smoking/#.UOr-7onjlU4">higher chance of being infertile</a>, compared with nonsmokers. Smoking is also linked to more spontaneous miscarriages, according to NBC News.
You'll Enjoy Food More
If you <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=8427779#.UOsAFInjlU4">don't like bland food</a>, then don't smoke, research suggests. A small 2009 study of Greek soldiers shows an association between smoking and <a href="http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-08/bc-stf081809.php">"fewer and flatter" taste buds</a>, according to a statement on the research.
Your Colds Won't Be As Bad
Mild cold symptoms could take on a more serious form for smokers, according to a study from Yale University researchers. The findings, published in 2008 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, showed an <a href="http://news.yale.edu/2008/07/24/study-shows-why-cigarette-smoke-makes-flu-other-viral-infections-worse">overreaction of the immune systems</a> of cigarette smoke-exposed mice when exposed to a virus similar to the flu. "The anti-viral responses in the cigarette smoke exposed mice were not only not defective, but were hyperactive," study researcher Dr. Jack A. Elias, M.D., said in a statement. "These findings suggest that smokers do not get in trouble because they can't clear or<a href="http://news.yale.edu/2008/07/24/study-shows-why-cigarette-smoke-makes-flu-other-viral-infections-worse"> fight off the virus</a>; they get in trouble because they overreact to it."
Quitting Smoking And Money Saving
Eletta Hansen explains some facts about smoking, and discusses how much money will you save if you quit smoking