Smoking damage appears as we age

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Most people who start smoking do so when they are young and feel invincible.

Because of their youth, the symptoms of the damage they are inflicting upon their bodies is less apparent. They feel much the same as they did before they smoked, which feeds into the illusion that it's no big deal.

The consequences come later, and they are devastating. Around 60 percent of my patients suffer from diseases caused by smoking. Some stopped smoking many years ago, but the damage was still done.

A person who smokes two packs a day actually shortens his or her life by eight years on average. Lighter smokers, too, sacrifice several years of their life to this addiction.

Cigarette smoke contains approximately 200 toxins that cause a wide array of diseases and disorders including coronary heart disease, stroke, stomach ulcers, many cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Those diseases aren't limited just to the smokers, but also appear in the people around them who inhale second-hand smoke. There's very good data now that shows the laws restricting smoking in public places in this country have led to a decrease in heart disease among non-smokers. That is an actual measurable result.

It also has been shown that children who grow up with smokers are more likely to develop asthma.

We all experience age-related changes later in life. Lung function declines as a normal part of growing older. In non-smokers, it is gradual and if they are otherwise healthy they can remain active until very late in life. Smokers, however, experience a multiplying effect -- they lose lung function to smoking and to aging. The lungs are particularly unforgiving. Lost lung function does not return. As smokers grow older, they increasingly struggle to breathe.

I often counsel patients to stop smoking. Unfortunately, by the time they are seeing a pulmonologist like me they are already feeling short of breath, and much irreversible damage is already done.

When they stop smoking they will notice an improvement in coughing and mucus production, and they will prevent further smoking-related damage. Those are all good things. But it does not undo the damage years of smoking has already done.

If you are a smoker, I urge you not to wait until you feel symptoms before you try to quit. Try and keep trying until you succeed. Prepare yourself, set a date, and quit. Don't attempt to do multiple things at once. Just focus on stopping smoking.

Many people find a peer group helpful, whether that is through a class, support group or online community. The Providence St. Mary Regional Cancer Center and Walla Walla General Hospital offer free smoking cessation classes that can be helpful.

Your primary care physician also can prescribe medications that can ease the nicotine withdrawal.

Smoking is a terrible addiction, and quitting may be extremely difficult. But it is not nearly as hard as the life you will lead after being diagnosed with a chronic disease.

Dr. Michael Bernstein is a pulmonary and critical care specialist with the Providence Medical Group, and the Chief Medical Officer at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

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