When you stop smoking, your heart starts to rebound right away, but a full recovery can take as long as 15 years, a new study suggests.
"The benefit of quitting smoking cannot be overstated - the cardiovascular system begins to recover quickly, with some physiologic changes happening within hours," said lead researcher Meredith Duncan, of the division of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn.
Duncan and her team found that within five years after quitting, your risk of heart disease is significantly lower than that of people who continue to puff away. But it takes 10 to 15 years before your risk is similar to that of someone who never smoked.
Experts have long thought that an ex-smoker's risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure or death from heart disease returns to normal within five years.
Given this new finding, Duncan said doctors should consider that heavy smokers who stop will have a higher-than-normal risk for heart problems for at least a decade.
"Full recovery may take several years, so today is a great day for current smokers to quit smoking, and make a doctor's appointment to plan for successful long-term cessation and to discuss other steps toward heart health," she said.
For the study, her team collected data on nearly 8,800 men and women who took part in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing study of factors that contribute to heart disease.
Among the study participants, nearly 2,400 were heavy tobacco users, meaning they smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years, or an equivalent.
During an average follow-up of 26 years, more than 2,400 participants had a heart attack, stroke, heart failure or died from heart disease. Of these, nearly 1,100 were heavy smokers, the researchers found.
Dr. Gregg Fonarow, director of the Ahmanson-UCLA Cardiomyopathy Center in Los Angeles, said nearly every study of former smokers finds that their risk for heart events is lower than that of those who continue to smoke.
"It's never too late, from a cardiovascular risk standpoint, to stop smoking," he said, no matter how much you smoke or how long you've done so.
Fonarow pointed out that smoking is a leading cause of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and premature death. "Quitting significantly lowers this risk," he said.
But the length of time when the risk is reduced to the same level as people who never smoked has been estimated to be anywhere between two and 20 years, he said. It's usually pegged at five years, he added. This new study among heavy smokers doubles that time.
"It is best to never start smoking," Fonarow said. "For those who do smoke, it is important to completely quit as soon as possible."
The report was published Aug. 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.