You are never too old to beat the smoking habit

The 1966 male smoking rate was a huge 68 per cent. Picture: Getty
The 1966 male smoking rate was a huge 68 per cent. Picture: Getty
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Too many pensioners still light up, says Sheila Duffy

IT’S never too late to give up smoking and feel the health benefits. It’s a message we must get across to Scotland’s senior citizens, who perhaps think that stopping in later life will make no difference to them.

So why isn’t older always wiser when it comes to tobacco use?

As well as habit and addiction, it was a social climate in which smoking was widespread when many of today’s older smokers tried their first cigarette. The 1966 male smoking rate was a huge 68 per cent, and female smoking reached its peak that year at 45 per cent. That chilling milestone in female smokers, and the continued uptake during the 1970s when the tobacco industry aligned smoking with women’s rights, may explain why lung cancer is set to overtake breast cancer as the biggest cause of female cancer deaths in Europe.

The attitudes of older people towards quitting were studied in an international survey of smokers aged 60 and over. It found that they saw themselves as being less vulnerable to the harm of smoking, were less concerned about the health effects, weren’t as confident about being able to quit successfully and did not see any health benefits from giving up.

On top of these beliefs, hardly a month passes without media reports of people who reach a grand old age in good health despite being smokers. And everyone knows a friend or relative who is long-lived despite an ongoing taste for fatty food, alcohol or tobacco. So there is no shortage of elderly smokers, many of whom will have lit up for decades.

But the hard fact is that half of long-term smokers will die early because of their tobacco use. In Scotland, more than 40 per cent of 65 to 74-year-olds, and 35 per cent of those aged over 75, define themselves as former regular cigarette smokers. That’s an encouraging reflection of the general ongoing downward trend in smoking since the frightening rates of the mid-1960s.

However, there are still too many grans and granddads lighting up. Among those aged 65 to 74, 18 per cent are still smoking. And 9 per cent of over-75s are tobacco users.

People sometimes believe that they are too old to make any difference through quitting because the damage is already done. But research shows that the benefits of giving up are evident in all age groups, including those aged 80 and older. Quitting has a positive result on the length of time people live.

Another study has shown that beyond the age of 75, avoiding smoking and taking exercise are associated with living longer. Cutting risky behaviour such as tobacco use can add five years to women’s lives and six years to men’s. There are similarly encouraging findings for people aged 85 and older and for those who already have chronic health conditions.

Older smokers are likely to have more tobacco-related health problems. Many killer conditions, including lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, are caused by smoking.

The fastest and most important boost from giving up cigarettes at any age is cardiovascular. Advancing age is the biggest factor for developing dementia, so quitting has an additional benefit for older folk as it can help maintain mental sharpness and delay the onset of dementia. Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke can also lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke, which are underlying risk factors for dementia.

Older adults may have different reasons from the young and middle-aged for attempting to quit smoking. They may also have specific problems doing so. There may be barriers preventing them from getting involved with smoking cessation services. Can they get to the places where smoking cessation services are based? Can they access internet and text-based support advertised in the media, or download stop-smoking apps?

Our efforts to encourage older people to quit should also emphasise the improvements in health that can be achieved along with the chances of living longer. It’s vital that we and others who work in public health continue to send the message that, regardless of age, smokers can substantially reduce their risk of diseases, including cancer, by quitting.

For older smokers who were lured into lighting up in an era when it was fashionable, we can’t change the past. But, by helping them quit, we can help them improve their future. And if you are an older smoker thinking about giving up, I’d encourage you to go for it, and I wish you success and good health.

• Sheila Duffy is chief executive of Ash Scotland


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