By now, most people are aware of the risks incurred by smoking, but the statistics remain sobering. The American Heart Association reports that cigarette smoking still causes more than 440,000 deaths each year, accounting for about one-fifth of total deaths in the United States today. That's because the health risks of smoking include damage to major organs: the heart, blood vessels, lungs, and brain. Even if smoking did not affect any other part of the body, the effects it has on the heart alone are enough to make it dangerous. In conjunction with other risk factors, such as unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and being overweight, smoking also increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Health Risks of Smoking on the Heart and Blood Vessels
Even if you don't smoke every day, just a light amount of smoking can damage your blood cells, blood vessels, and heart, according to the National Institutes of Health. If you or your loved one is a smoker, the risk of developing heart disease is tripled, and the chances of suffering a heart attack are doubled. And if you already have heart disease and you smoke, or if you have a family history of heart disease, the risks are even greater.
One common condition that stems from smoking is atherosclerosis, which narrows and hardens the arteries throughout the body. Atherosclerosis that affects the heart arteries is called coronary artery disease (CAD), a health condition where plaque accumulates inside the coronary arteries. This plaque narrows the arteries and reduces oxygen-rich blood flow to your heart muscle. Blood clots can form in your arteries from the plaque accumulation, causing a partial or full blockage of blood flow. When blood flow is decreased or blocked, your risks for developing or dying from heart disease, heart failure, heart attack, and stroke are greatly increased.
Other Issues Caused by Smoking
Besides atherosclerosis, which is one of the most common conditions caused by smoking, there are many other issues that can arise, according to the American Heart Association. These include:
- Blood pressure. Smoking can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, causing your heart to have to work harder than normal.
- Cholesterol. Smoking lowers your HDL, also known as good cholesterol, and raises your LDL, or bad cholesterol.
- Inflammation. Inflammation can increase plaque accumulation in your arteries.
- Exercise tolerance. Smoking can decrease your ability to exercise, which can make it difficult for you to maintain or lose weight.
- Diabetes. If you are diabetic and smoke, you increase damage to your heart and blood vessels.
- Effects on women using birth control. Women who smoke while on hormonal birth control have an increased risk of blood clots, heart attack, and stroke.
One of the best ways to reduce your risk of heart disease is to know your heart health risks. You can decrease your risk of heart disease by avoiding tobacco smoke. Even though quitting smoking is hard, it is possible. Millions of people each year successfully quit smoking and remain nonsmokers.
No matter how long you have smoked, quitting smoking improves your health by reversing heart and blood vessel damage and reducing your risk of developing and dying from heart disease, as detailed by the American Heart Association. Over time, quitting can also lower your risk of atherosclerosis and blood clots.
Not smoking, following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying physically active are all important parts of a heart-healthy lifestyle. So if you still smoke, talk with a doctor about creating a program to help you or a loved one finally quit smoking for good.