Smoking Cessation for Older Adults: It's Not Too Late!
"But I've been smoking for 45 years."
"The damage has already been done."
"Why shouldn't I enjoy my cigarettes? It doesn't matter at my age."
The truth is, it does matter. Seniors who quit smoking tend to enjoy better health and quality of life than their peers who continue to smoke.
Gaining Health Benefits
Many people do not realize that smoking cessation has immediate and long-term benefits. One study of adults (aged 50-74 years) without a history of heart attack or stroke were followed for 9 years. Current and former smokers experienced a first heart attack, stroke, or death from heart-related diseases over 2 times more than nonsmokers. But, researchers found the risks from smoking decreased after smokers quit, regardless of age, how much one smoked, or for how long.
The benefits of quitting increase over time as your body heals itself.
In 1 day:
- Blood circulation increases
- Carbon monoxide levels in the blood decrease
- Heart rate and blood pressure decrease
In several days to several weeks:
- Sense of taste and smell improves
- Lung capacity increases
- Breathing becomes easier
In several weeks to 9 months:
- Energy level increases
- Lungs become cleaner and more functional
- Colds and other respiratory tract infections become less common
- Sinus congestion decreases
- Shortness of breath decreases
- Risk of heart disease, heart attack, and lung cancer decreases (risk can eventually be similar to that of a lifelong nonsmoker)
- Risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, bladder, pancreas, and kidney decreases
- Risk of dying prematurely decreases
Gaining Even More Benefits
Quitting smoking has additional health benefits, such as decreased risk of peripheral artery disease, stroke, and chronic lung disease ( bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma). Giving up cigarettes may also reduce your risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, thyroid conditions, hearing loss, erectile dysfunction, dementia, and osteoporosis.
Even if you already have a chronic disease, quitting smoking may help reduce the severity of your symptoms and keep you healthier longer. Still think it is too late?
"But I have been smoking for 45 years!" you say. "I'll never be able to quit smoking at this point."
You may be surprised to hear that older smokers are usually more successful at quitting smoking than younger smokers. This is especially true if they already have health problems, particularly those associated with smoking.
Studies suggest that elderly persons who ask their doctors about help for smoking cessation are more likely to get that help and may be more likely to be successful quitters. At your next medical visit, do not forget to ask what you and your doctor together can do to help you kick the habit.
Preparing to Quit
- List all the reasons you want to quit smoking and look at your list often.
- Get help from your doctor, a smoking cessation specialist, or a group cessation program. Discuss using nicotine replacement products (patch, chewing gum, or nasal spray), or medications, along with a behavior change program.
- 1 week before you quit, keep a journal of when and where you smoke each cigarette. Record how you are feeling each time (happy, anxious, relaxed, angry, sad, or lonely). This will help you be more aware of your smoking patterns.
- Choose a method of quitting, such as gradually cutting back or quitting all at once. Quitting all at once tends to be most effective.
- Set a quit date on your calendar.
Using Helpful Strategies
- On quit day, throw out all your cigarettes and ashtrays.
- Review your smoking journal and identify your smoking patterns. If you regularly smoke in certain places at certain times (in the kitchen after a meal, for example), change your routine (get up from the table after eating). Identify other high-risk situations such as stress, depression, and being around other smokers. Have a plan for every situation.
- Create a list of ways to distract yourself from a cigarette craving. Examples include calling a friend, taking a walk, chewing gum, or taking a warm bath.
- Reward yourself with a treat (not food) for every week you do not smoke. Put the money you save by not buying cigarettes in a jar and watch it grow.
- Have a supportive buddy (preferably an ex-smoker) you can call during the rough times.
- To avoid weight gain, eat low-fat meals and snacks with lots of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Drink lots of water. Exercise daily. Consult a nutritionist if weight gain becomes a problem.
- Withdrawal symptoms should go away in a few days. Nicotine replacement products and medications like bupropion can help. Try to get more rest and relaxation.
Learning How to Handle Stress
Many people go back to smoking sometimes years after quitting when a crisis hits. Plan ahead for how you will handle a stressful event such as a death, divorce, retirement, illness, etc. That way, you will not be caught off guard.
Most ex-smokers make several attempts to quit before they are successful. If you start smoking again, do not let feelings of regret, guilt, or failure get a handle on you. Learn from your setbacks and get right back on the program. It is not too late!
American Lung Association
Tobacco Information and Prevention Source
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Gellert C, Schottker B, et al. Impact of smoking and quitting on cardiovascular outcomes and risk advancement periods among older adults. Eur J Epidemiol. 2013;28(8):649-658.
Guide to quitting smoking. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/002971-pdf.pdf. Published February 6, 2014. Accessed July 15, 2016.
The real rewards of quitting. Smoke Free website. Available at: http://smokefree.gov/rewards-of-quitting. Accessed July 15, 2016.
Whitson HE, Heflin MT, Burchett BM. Patterns and predictors of smoking cessation in an elderly cohort. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006;54:466-471.
12/30/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Cao Y, Kenfield S, Song Y, et al. Cigarette smoking cessation and total and cause-specific mortality: a 22-year follow-up study among US male physicians. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(21):1956-1959.
Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 8/8/2014