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Just one cigarette a day doubles a woman's risk of having a fatal heart attack
21:03 GMT, 11 December 2012
Habit-forming: On average, those in the study who smoked reported that they started in their late teens
Women who smoke as little as one a day are at higher risk of dying suddenly from heart attack and other heart problems, warn researchers.
The risk is doubled compared with women who don’t smoke, and higher for long-term smokers.
A new study suggests women smokers face greater heart dangers than previously thought, even when they appear to be healthy.
But the threat can be reversed within five years if women quit the habit, say Canadian researchers.
Roopinder Sandhu, the study’s lead author and a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Alberta’s Mazankowski Heart Institute in Edmonton, Alberta, said: ‘Sudden cardiac death is often the first sign of heart disease among women, so lifestyle changes that reduce the risk are particularly important.
‘Our study shows that cigarette smoking is an important modifiable risk factor for sudden cardiac death among all women. Quitting smoking before heart disease develops is critical.’
In the UK almost half the ten million smokers are women. Although smoking is falling among both sexes the decline has been less rapid in women.
Researchers examined the rate of sudden cardiac death – unexpected death within minutes from heart-related causes including heart attack and rhythm abnormalities – among more than 101,000 healthy women in the Nurses’ Health Study.
They included records dating back to 1980 with 30 years of follow-up on participants aged between 30 to 55 years old at the study’s start.
On average, those who smoked reported that they started in their late teens.
During the study, 351 women died of sudden cardiac death, says a report in Circulation: Arrhythmia & Electrophysiology, an American Heart Association journal.
The findings showed even light-to-moderate smokers, who smoked one to 14 cigarettes daily, had nearly two times the risk of sudden cardiac death as non-smokers.
Women with no history of heart disease, cancer, or stroke who smoked had almost two and a half times the risk of sudden cardiac death compared with healthy women who never smoked.
For every five years of continued smoking, the risk climbed by eight per cent.
Among women with heart disease, the risk of sudden cardiac death dropped to that of a non smoker within 15 to 20 years after smoking cessation.
But in the absence of heart disease, there was an immediate reduction in sudden cardiac death risk, occurring in fewer than five years.
Incentive: Scientists say quitting smoking before heart disease develops is critical
Dr Sandhu said: ‘Cigarette smoking is a known risk factor for sudden cardiac death, but until now, we didn’t know how the quantity and duration of smoking affected the risk among apparently healthy women, nor did we have long-term follow-up.’
Ellen Mason, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: ‘This study shows that smoking just a couple of cigarettes a day could still seriously affect your future health.
‘As we approach the New Year, many of us will be making resolutions and giving up smoking will be top of the list for lots of people. If you’re thinking of quitting and need a nudge, this research adds to the wealth of evidence that stopping smoking is the single best thing you can do for your heart health.’
In addition to heart disease, smoking triggers lung cancer which each year in the UK causes almost 16,000 deaths in women – more than breast and cervical cancer combined at 13,000.
Experts blame the toll on women adopting a smoking lifestyle later than men in the 20th century – often as a way of controlling their weight – and being more at risk from smoking-related lung diseases at an earlier age.
A major US study last year found women smokers face a 25 per cent higher risk of developing heart disease compared with men who smoke.
Toxins in cigarette smoke appear to affect women more badly, and the risk could be even greater because women tend to get through fewer cigarettes than men.