Smoking and older people 4

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 where 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, over 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-60s.

However, there are still too many grans and granddads lighting up. Among those aged 65 to 74, 18 per cent are still smoking. And nine 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, things like 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 in 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, in turn, 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.

This article first appeared in Friends of The Scotsman



  1. This is such a good article, so it is such a pity that there is not a mention of e cigarettes . People of the age mentioned, my age, have mostly given up trying to quit after numerous failures using the methods advocated here. The overall success rate is a miserable 3 / 4%, slightly higher with counselling. The success rate after one year with e cigarettes is 60 / 70 % I do not, however, need this type of evidence to convince me – I stopped by using an e cigarette a year ago this month. I had used up every other cessation method and they had all failed. With the e cigarette, it was so easy. Once i was used to the taste which is different it was plain sailing, and never once did I get a craving for a cigarette – simply bewilderment that I was not finding it difficult.

  2. Cigarette consumption exploded after WWII. And so did life expectancy. Curious, isn´t it? At least since 1980 the numbers of smokers decreased and lung cancer increased. Curious, isn´t it?
    Any statistics of the WHO should be treated with utmost care. She faked billions of “smoking related” deaths. Any smoker suffering a strike at the age of 90 dies because of “smoking related” illness. And the biggest fake of the WHO was the statistics on 2nd-hand-smoke. More than 70% of the dead “victims” were older than 75 years.
    Now the WHO is starting the next fake. You will hear terrific stories about obesity from now on. Obesity will cause more cancers than smoking. And then they will focus on the war on alcohol until we live a boring life.

    • “Cigarette consumption exploded after WWII. And so did life expectancy. Curious, isn´t it?”

      The fact that life expectancy improved shortly after a major war in which tens of millions died is not generally regarded as a controversial issue. (Incidentally, life expectancy was improving before WW2 and continued to improve thereafter.)

      If your suggestion is that the availability of cigarettes improved life expectancy post WW2 and a decreasing number of smokers paradoxically resulted in increasing number of cases of lung cancer (which is incorrect, of course), then you may also be interested in my theory — using the same method of reasoning — that an increasing volume of fresh Mexican lemons imported into the USA significantly reduced US highway fatalities.

      graph showing correlation between highway fatalities and lemon imports

      Because one thing happens before or alongside something else, it does not necessarily follow that it is causing something else.

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