You're Never Too Old to Quit Smoking

Close up image of senior man who is decided to quit smoking.

Today’s seniors grew up in an era of increased medical research showing the devastating effects of tobacco smoke … but the culture and laws had not yet caught up. Younger people today laugh when they see characters in old movies smoking on an airplane or in a hospital. Cigarette ads in those days featured sports figures, celebrities, even doctors. When the baby boomers were in college, they could light up in class!

Things are different today. We know a lot more about the dangers of smoking. Smoking is linked to many causes of death and disability, including cancer, heart and lung disease, osteoporosis, chronic joint and muscle pain, eye diseases and dementia.

And smoking doesn’t carry risks only for smokers. Most people today know about the dangers of “secondhand smoke”—smoke from the lighted end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar. According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke is more toxic than the smoke that’s inhaled by a smoker! And the harmful residue that builds up on carpeting and furnishings—"thirdhand smoke”—can be dangerous even for the new tenants of a home after a smoker has moved out. Secondhand and thirdhand smoke are especially dangerous for small children. The American Veterinary Association says it also can be harmful for dogs, cats, birds and even fish.

Beyond the health risks, social factors can motivate smokers to quit. Delays on the tarmac are a lot harder for airline passengers who are craving a smoke! Then there’s finding a place to smoke outside on a rainy day, and the disapproving stares of people downwind of a smoker’s output.

And what about money? The cost of smoking really adds up. A person who smokes a pack of cigarettes each day stands to save an average of $3,000 each year if they quit, to say nothing of healthcare costs. Looking at the big picture, the effects of smoking cost the U.S. economy more than $300 billion annually!

In spite of all this information, many seniors think it’s too late to quit. “The damage is already done,” they say. “And I don’t think I would be able to give it up after all these years.”

But these excuses don’t hold up under scrutiny. A number of studies show that no matter how old a smoker is, if they quit, their risk of many health conditions goes down right away, and their life expectancy goes up. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) points to some specific benefits of quitting, even after 30 or more years of smoking:

  • Lung function and circulation begin to improve soon after a person quits.
  • Smokers who quit have improved cardiovascular health, no matter their age.
  • Older smokers who have had a heart attack reduce their risk of another by quitting.

And there’s more good news. It’s true that fewer older adults start a quit-smoking program, but those who do are more successful at kicking the habit than are younger folks.

Experts offer this advice for seniors who are trying to quit

Set a date to quit smoking. Experts say going “cold turkey”—quitting all at once—is the best way to quit, though tapering down gradually works for some. The sooner you get to zero, the better. A recent study showed that smoking even one cigarette per day substantially raises a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke!

It helps to have a support system. The National Institute on Aging says seniors should talk to their doctor first to make a plan for dealing with the urge to smoke. Individual or group counseling and support groups provide a boost of encouragement to stick with it during this period. There are also smoking hotlines in every state. Call (800) 784-8669 to be connected to your state’s “quitline.”

Tell your family and friends what’s going on. You may experience mood swings during the withdrawal period. And folks can really help by not smoking around you, by removing ashtrays and smoking materials from the home, and by not asking you to meet in places where people are smoking. Family and friends can also provide distractions during this period—a trip to the movies, dinner with the family, or a brisk walk. Exercise helps!

If you aren’t successful the first time, try again. You might need to try a different approach next time—but remember, according to the National Institute on Aging, if you were able to quit for even 24 hours, you’ve doubled your chances of quitting for good!

What about medications?

Smoking isn’t merely a habit, like biting your nails. The nicotine in tobacco is a powerfully addictive drug. As you withdraw from it, you may experience discomfort and intense cravings. Certain medications can help lessen this discomfort and the urge to smoke. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your health conditions and other medications you take before taking an over-the-counter nicotine replacement drug. Your doctor might also prescribe other types of medication.

Find free help and a community of support online

November 15, 2018 is The Great American Smokeout. The American Cancer Society offers tools and information to help people of every age quit the habit, and tips for family members who want to support the smoking cessation efforts of a loved one.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The Lung Association offers the online Freedom from Smoking program.

Visit SmokeFree.gov for smoking cessation resources from the U.S. government, including a free quit smoking guide for people 50 and older and information for family and friends.

The American Heart Association’s Quit Smoking Tobacco program offers lots of tips for people who are trying to quit smoking and loved ones who want to support and encourage them.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.