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Stopping smoking early can extend women’s lives by 10 years

By Kathy Oxtoby

A study of more than a million women finds giving up smoking before reaching 30 can extend life by 10 years.

What do we know already?

It's well known that smoking is harmful to your body. Inhaling cigarette smoke damages your lungs and deprives your cells of oxygen. It also exposes your body to more than 4,000 chemicals, many of which are poisonous. About half of all smokers eventually die of lung cancer, heart disease, or other illnesses that can be caused by smoking.

While there have been many studies showing that smoking is harmful, it is only now that researchers can look at the long-term effects of smoking on women, and the benefits of quitting. This is because the number of women smokers peaked in women who were born in the 1940s and started smoking during the 1960s. Now that these women are in their 60s, researchers can look at the long-term impact of smoking on their health.

To find out more about the hazards of smoking for women and the benefits of given up smoking at different ages, researchers looked at a million women in the UK who were aged between 50 and 65 between 1996 and 2001. The women first completed a questionnaire about their lifestyle and health at the beginning of the study. The questionnaire asked them whether they were current or ex-smokers, and how many cigarettes they smoked. All women had their NHS records tracked until 2011.

What does the new study say?

Overall, around 6 in 100 women died during the study, at an average of 65 years old.

At the start of the study, women who were smokers were more than twice as likely to die early as non-smokers. Three years later women who were still smokers were nearly three times as likely as non-smokers to die over the next nine years. This result was broadly the same regardless of what age women were.

The more cigarettes women smoked a day the higher their risk of dying early. But even those women who smoked one to nine cigarettes a day still had twice the risk of dying early compared to women who didn’t smoke.

The earlier women stopped smoking the more chance they had of living longer. By stopping smoking before the age of 40, women reduced the additional risk of dying early from causes related to smoking by 90 percent. Women who stopped smoking before the age of 30 reduced their risk by 97 percent.

As women were followed in the study for a minimum of 10 years - and women who quit smoking before the age of 30 were almost completely free from risk of dying early from smoking-related health problems - the researchers concluded that giving up smoking before age 30 can extend a woman’s life by 10 years.

The researchers also looked at whether it was safe if a woman smokes until age 40 years and then stopped. Women who did this still had a higher risk of dying early over the next few decades than women who had never smokers.

How reliable is the research?

This was a very large study that followed participants for 10 years and its findings should be fairly reliable. The researchers also took into account several factors known to affect people’s health and risk of dying, including their age and how much alcohol they drank, which strengthens these findings.

What does this mean for me?

If you smoke, the reasons to stop are many, but the pull of habit and nicotine addiction can be hard to resist. However, by suggesting that stopping smoking could help you live longer, this study provides another reason that may give you an extra incentive to quit. The researchers’ claim that stopping smoking before age 30 can extend your life by 10 years does seem to be confirmed by the results of the study.

Nicotine is addictive and you may need to try quitting several times before you stop smoking for good. If you need support to help you quit there are several treatments available, and you can visit your GP or pharmacist for advice about quitting.


Pirie K, Peto R, Reeves GK, et al. The 21st century hazards of smoking and benefits of stopping: a prospective study of one million women in the UK the Million Women Study. Lancet. Published online 27 October 2012.

Oct 26, 2012