As many of you are no doubt aware, this month ushers in a season of lung health observances— November is both COPD and lung cancer awareness month, and the American Cancer Society’s “Great American Smokeout” falls on the 21st.
It’s a prime time to quit smoking—an unhealthy habit that isn’t just a concern for the young.
The History of Smoking in America
For generations, smoking was viewed as a harmless (or even, in the earliest days, healthful) habit.
A few decades ago, the current generation of older adults were some of the heaviest smokers of any generation in American history. In the 60s, more than half of all adult males were regular smokers—and an additional 21% had only very recently given up the habit.
Then the generation watched well-loved smokers from their youth—notables like Johnny Carson, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne— suffer through extended illnesses (Carson to emphysema, Bogart to esophageal cancer, and Wayne to cancer and heart disease) that scientific breakthroughs have since proven were related to their smoking habits.
And some things have changed since the 1960s.
Senior healthcare specialists have recorded a drop in the number of smokers in the situation. In the 21st century, only about 9% of adults 65 and over are regular smokers, but even older adults who have quit smoking can be at risk for smoking-related illness.
And while the percentage of smokers has dropped with age, those who do smoke tend to be heavier smokers and are more likely to suffer from a chronic illness because they have smoked longer (an average of 40 years for those who began as young adults).
The American Lung Association has the facts on the older adult habit:
- An estimated 438,000 Americans die each year from diseases caused by smoking; in fact, it’s responsible for more than 1 in 5 deaths in the United States.
- About half of all regular cigarette smokers die from health complications caused by their habit.
- Smoking is a major risk factor for chronic conditions like coronary heart disease and lower respiratory tract infections and can be a contributing factor to stroke— all of which are leading causes of death in Americans over 50 years of age.
- About 80 percent of women who die from lung cancer were regular smokers and about 90 percent of men.
- Smoking is directly responsible for more than 90 percent of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, or emphysema and chronic bronchitis) deaths. It’s currently the fourth-leading cause of death and is predicted to become third by 2020.
- COPD is particularly prevalent among those who are 65 years of age or older, and the disease consistently ranks among the top ten most common chronic health conditions. It’s also a primary cause of daily activity limitation among American seniors.
- Men 65 or older who smoke are twice as likely to die from a stroke, and women smokers are about one and a half times as likely to die from a stroke than their nonsmoking counterparts.
- The risk of dying from a heart attack is 60 percent higher for smokers than nonsmokers 65 or older.
- Cigarette smokers have a far greater chance of developing dementia of any kind including Alzheimer's disease compared to non-smokers.
- Smokers also have two to three times the risk of developing cataracts, the leading cause of blindness and visual loss, as nonsmokers.
- Smoking reduces one's normal life expectancy by an average of 13 to 15 years—which can cut out the golden years of retirement living for most smokers.
Unfortunately, despite these very real statistics, older smokers are unlikely to change their habits without intervention from family and senior healthcare providers as they are far less likely to believe that smoking harms their health than a younger smoker.
If you have a loved one who’s clinging to their old habit, now is the time to help them break the habit.