I hear it every day – “Doc, quitting smoking is the hardest thing I’ve had to do.” I’ve had patients who were able to address addictions to alcohol and drugs who still struggled with smoking cessation, often making several attempts before finding success.
People don’t necessarily struggle with quitting due to their age, amount they smoke daily, or the number of years they’ve smoked. Smoking cessation is difficult because nicotine, the active drug in tobacco, is highly addictive. In fact, research suggests that nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.
Regardless, I can’t stress enough the importance of smoking cessation on your vascular health. Smoking can be attributed to increased stroke risk and overall vascular disease. In fact, statistics show that half of active smokers with symptoms of vascular disease will not survive five years. These are daunting yet eye opening statistics.
Smoking negatively affects the vascular system in significant ways. The nicotine in cigarettes raises blood pressure, speeds up heart rate, and constricts blood vessels, causing a narrowing that makes it harder for blood to be pumped through.
The body reacts to this narrowing of blood vessels by releasing stores of fat and cholesterol into the blood, causing plaque to build up on the inner walls. This plaque accelerates the hardening and narrowing of blood vessels and places you at much higher risk of a host of vascular health issues, including stroke, leg wounds, and pain with walking.
As with any addictive substance, withdrawal is what makes it so difficult to quit smoking. Nicotine withdrawal can leave you feeling irritable or anxious. You may have trouble thinking clearly and may experience incredible tobacco cravings. These effects tend to be most profound within the first 1-3 weeks of your last cigarette.
Once you quit smoking you will breath more easily, have more energy, and likely add years to your life. You will also save money. If you are a pack a day smoker, you could fund a nice annual vacation on the money you will save.
The CDC attributes smoking cessation to reduced risk for many types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease. Health benefits are greater for those who quit at an earlier age, but there are benefits at any age. In fact, once you quit, risks become that of a non-smoker over ten years.
There are various ways that people have found success when quitting, including behavioral support, cold turkey, nicotine replacement therapy, or medications. I find a combination approach of medications (Bupropion) and a nicotine-free e-cigarette has produced the best results in my patients. Regardless of approach, it’s advisable to have a strong support team in place before quitting. This can consist of family, friends, and care providers.
If quitting cold turkey, pick a date and stick to it. Make a list of reasons why you need to quit and post it in a visible area. Rid your home, car, and workplace of every reminder of tobacco use. Create diversional activities to occupy your hands and mouth. Avoid areas where you will be exposed to second-hand smoke to decrease temptation and reach out for support when temptation is greatest.
Many employers, insurance plans, hospitals, and clinics offer counseling sessions to help with quitting. You can also call the National Smoking Cessation Hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW for 24-hour support when trying to quit.
Nicotine replacement therapy is a viable option for those who can’t quit cold turkey. This is a safe method that alleviates withdrawal symptoms by giving you less nicotine than cigarettes, and can be gradually tapered off over the course of a few months.
Effective replacement therapies include nicotine inhalers, lozenges, gum, patches, and nasal spray. Nicotine-free vapor cigarettes can serve as a diversion for those who don’t know what to do with their hands and mouth.
Medications such as Bupropion and Varenicline are available through doctor’s prescription and have shown positive results in aiding smoking cessation. As with any medication, consult with your care provider to see if the medication is right for you and take only as directed.
Whatever method you choose, stick with it. Continually remind yourself of the reasons you are quitting and lean on your support team in those toughest moments. Finally, think about the potential years you may be adding to your life as you improve your vascular health and reduce your risk of vascular disease.
No matter your age, you’re not too old to reap the health benefits of smoking cessation.