MONDAY, March 19, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Smoke-stiffened arteries will slowly regain a healthy flexibility if smokers kick the habit, a new study finds.
"It took a while before the arteries came back to normal," stressed Dr. Azra Mahmud, a lecturer in cardiovascular pharmacology at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, where the study was done. "It took at least 10 years before the arteries got back to where they were before smoking. The lesson is that the more quickly you give up smoking, the better it is for your arteries."
Hardened arteries can increase blood pressure, boosting the risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack and stroke.
Mahmud and her colleagues have done a series of studies on changes in blood vessels due to smoking. This latest trial, reported Monday in the March issue of Hypertension, included 554 people who had high blood pressure but had never been treated for it. The group included 268 people who had never smoked, 150 current smokers and 136 ex-smokers.
Of the ex-smokers, 22 had stopped for less than a year, 40 for 1 to 10 years and 40 for at least 10 years.
"We did the study to see if there was any benefit in quitting smoking in getting arteries back to a younger age," Mahmud said.
What they found was that blood vessels regained their flexibility in direct proportion to the length of time passed since that last cigarette.
The researchers used a technology called "arterial pulse wave analysis" to measure arterial stiffness. It showed significantly increased stiffness in both the current smokers and those who had quit less than a year ago. The major gain in flexibility came a decade or more after quitting, the researchers said.
"Its interesting from the scientific point of view that things like vascular stiffness could be improved," said Dr. Roger Blumenthal, director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center in Baltimore and a spokesman for the American Heart Association. "Lots of people thought they couldn't. This shows that you can change for the better, once you quit smoking," he said.
The study results need more follow-up, Mahmud said, looking at the effect of length of smoking on arterial function. "Especially if you smoke for a long time, it will take a longer time to get back to more normal function," she speculated.
The study did not look at other kinds of damage done by smoking, such as the effects on the lungs, Blumenthal noted. "There are lots of other reasons for giving up smoking," he said. "This just supports one reason."
The finding opens the way to research on the effects of treating other cardiovascular risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, Blumenthal said. "We could look at changes in those risk factors and maybe find an improvement for the better of the sort seen in this study," he said.
In related news, a team at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, found that smoking adds years to skin -- even skin in areas such as the inside of the upper arm, which is normally not exposed to sunlight.
The study, published in the March Archives of Dermatology, compared photos of underarm skin from 77 people, including both long-term smokers and nonsmokers.
"We found that the total number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day and the total number of years a person has smoked were linked with the amount of skin damage a person experienced," lead researcher Dr. Yolanda R. Helfrich, assistant professor of dermatology, said in a prepared statement.
There's more on smoking's effects on cardiovascular health at the American Heart Association.