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How Smoking Cigarettes Affects Young vs. Older Smokers

I was a heavy smoker for more than 30 years. After many attempts, I finally managed to kick the habit.

20% of American teens smoke.

20% of American teens smoke.

Does Smoking Effect Different People Differently?

The ultimate health effects of smoking are the same for everyone, whether it is a teen or young adult who has just picked up the habit—or whether it is an older, hard-core, nicotine addict. However, the length of time a person has smoked does make a difference in terms of how these health effects manifest themselves, as well as the risk of mortality. Obviously, a 50-year-old who has smoked for 30 years and has smoker's bronchitis is at greater risk of having a cold turn into pneumonia than a 20-year-old who has only been smoking for two years and is otherwise in good health.

Whatever the age of the smoker, there is no question that smoking cigarettes is potentially lethal, both for the smoker and for those who inhale the resulting second hand smoke. The risks are the same, but the perspective on those risks is different for young versus older smokers.

But either way, if you smoke, it is never too early or too late to think about quitting. I have known people who finally quit only after they had developed serious COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and were tethered to an oxygen line. Trust me—you don't want that to be you.

It is never too early or too late to think about quitting.

Sobering Facts for Young Smokers

Young smokers, only recently hooked, often think they will quit in a few years—or when they go to college, or get married, or have children, or when they turn 40 or some other time in the future. They think that they have time before the effects of smoking catch up with them. The fact is that decisions made when one is young cast a very long shadow. To wit:

  • The majority of young people who smoke regularly continue to smoke throughout adulthood, with serious, resulting health risks.
  • Smoking not only produces a lower level of lung function in young people but also reduces the rate of lung growth in young people.
  • Smoking definitely causes heart disease. The connection is quite clear. Even in young smokers who have not had the habit long, resting heart rates are two to three beats per minute faster than nonsmokers.
  • On average, a nonsmoker lives seven years longer than a smoker. The difference is even greater for those who begin smoking in their teen years.
  • There is some indication that those who start to smoke before the brain has completely finished growing have a much harder time quitting and are more thoroughly addicted than those who start smoking after age 20.
  • Smoking at an early age increases the risk of lung cancer. For most smoking-related cancers, the risk rises as the individual continues to smoke.
  • According to the World Health Organization, teenage smokers suffer from shortness of breath almost three times as often as teens who don't smoke and produce phlegm more than twice as often as teens who don't smoke. They are also more likely to have seen a doctor or other health professionals for an emotional or psychological complaint.

Here are some sobering facts from the blog Smoking Facts.Net on the subject of teen smoking.

  • 20% of American teens smoke, and the bulk of first use occurs before high school graduation. Kids smoke despite the knowledge that smoking is addictive and leads to disease.
  • Adolescent girls who smoke and take oral birth control pills greatly increase their chances of having blood clots and strokes. In addition, according to the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers who smoke are more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, and here is the kicker: more than 90% of adult smokers started when they were teens.

More than 90% of adult smokers started when they were teens.

In the mid-1960s, more than half the adult male population of the United States smoked.

In the mid-1960s, more than half the adult male population of the United States smoked.

Facts for Older Smokers

Most older smokers who are still puffing away on more than one or two cigarettes a week are doing so not because they want to but because they have to. Most have tried in vain to quit, and many have settled for disgruntled denial. They are like outlaws holed up in a box canyon, hoarding their Marlboros and trying to make it out alive.

Misleading Advertisements

There has been a sea change in public opinion since these folks (and I was one of them) started to smoke. Back in the day, smoking was cool, hip, and far from being considered dangerous; it was touted as a way to calm the nerves, an aid to digestion, and a tool for weight loss.

Smoking in the Cinema

Just have a look at Hollywood movies from the 1930s and '40s; people are lighting up every few seconds. In the mid-1960s, more than half the adult male population of the United States smoked, and while many in this generation have now stopped, and many more have died from smoking-related illnesses, the remainder who are still puffing away are quite defensive about it and resistant to quitting.

Older Smokers Have Greater Risks

According to The American Lung Association, the consequences of smoking are even more dire for older smokers than for young ones for three reasons. First, older smokers have been smoking longer, plus they tend to smoke more heavily and be more resistant to the notion that their smoking has anything to do with their health.

Here are a few facts just for older smokers on what lies ahead and the possible stages of death by smoking, courtesy of the American Lung Association. The facts are stunning.

  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), aka em­physema and chronic bronchi­tis, takes years to develop but is almost entirely confined to smokers or former smokers. Smoking is directly responsi­ble for more than 90 percent of COPD deaths.
  • The link to lung cancer is proven and irrefutable: 80–90% of lung cancer deaths in women and men, respectively, can be traced to cigarette smoking, and older smokers are more at risk than younger ones for this fatal disease.
  • Smoking is a major risk factor for coro­nary heart disease, stroke, and lower respiratory tract infections which are all leading causes of death in people over 50.
  • Cigarette smokers have a far greater chance of developing dementia of any kind including Alzheimer's disease compared to nonsmokers
  • Smokers also have two to three times the risk of developing cataracts, the leading cause of blindness and visual loss, as nonsmokers.
Back in the day, smoking was touted as a tool for weight loss.

Back in the day, smoking was touted as a tool for weight loss.

Hope for Older Smokers

If you are reading this and are an older smoker, I can just imagine the meat hook in your tum tum as you read the above facts. You tell yourself either that it won't happen to you because aunt Suzie lived to be 96 and she smoked a pack a day till the day she died, or you know you cannot quit because you have tried and failed, and you just figure you are doomed, and you are pissed at me for pointing out the bad news you don't want to hear. You hope against hope you will dodge the bullet. Well, fine. But if you want to even think about trying again to quit, read on.

It's Never Too Late To Quit

  • Quitting smoking has proven health benefits, even at a late age. When an older person quits smoking, circulation improves immediately, and the lungs begin to repair the damage. In one year, the added risk of heart disease is cut almost in half, and the risk of stroke, lung disease, and cancer also diminishes.
  • Among smokers who quit at age 65, men gained 1.4 to 2.0 years of life, and women gained 2.7 to 3.4 years.
  • A study found that middle-aged smokers and former smokers with mild or moderate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease breathed easier after quitting. Note to older women smokers: after one year, the women in the study who quit smoking had two times more improvement in lung function compared with the men who quit.
  • There is strong evidence that smoking cessation, even late in life, not only adds years but also improves the quality of life.

It has pretty well been proven that just cutting down on cigarettes but not quitting entirely does not reduce mortality risks from tobacco-related diseases. It's an all-or-nothing deal at any age. You quit, or you smoke. There is no in-between.

The Bottom Line for Both Young and Old Smokers

The bottom line is that there will never be a better time to quit than now—whatever your age or however much you smoke. The risks of smoking are the same in the end for both young and old. It will kill you. If you are okay with that, that's fine. But if you think you deserve better, think about quitting, whether you are at the beginning or near the end of your smoking history.

The question is not can you do it. Rather, the question is, do you want to?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 11, 2012:

It is sad, clintonb-- but then we are all responsible for the choices we make and choices made in youth can cast a very long shadow indeed. Thanks for reading and commenting.

clintonb from Adelaide, Australia on April 10, 2012:

This hub is kinda sad.. I'm a non-smoker..and trust me it feels terrible when i see my loved ones smoking..its being so dangerous!!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 09, 2012:

Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing your personal experience and adding your voice-- much appreciated.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 09, 2012:

Great article for those who smoke and those who have quit like me. I quit smoking almost 3 years ago. I saw and felt lots of improvements

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on April 04, 2012:

Amen to that Vinaya:-)

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on April 04, 2012:

Thank god, I don't smoke!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 26, 2012:

Good to know, TotalHealth. Thanks for adding that link--much appreciated.

TotalHealth from Hermosa Beach, CA on March 26, 2012:

Nice hub. According to the CDC, "tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death." Refer to for more details. Thanks!!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 25, 2012:

.... and it is in a dedicated venue where adults can do what they want and ferchissakes we all need to have a little fun. I suspect there is no second hand smoke either so that's a plus as well. I'm really not a puritan. In fact I think if booze and cigarettes are legal, marijuana should be too--regulate and tax em all is my opinion:-) I am not doing these hubs on quitting for the occasional recreational ssmoker, I'm doing them for smokers who want to quit but can't or young smokers who are just starting and really need to be informed about what they are getting into. The choice is a personal one and what is right for one is not right for another.

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on March 24, 2012:

Yes, I did a shisha hub. The very occasional shisha is a luxury I still allow myself. Of course it still counts as smoking, but it's more of a ritual (in these parts) and about once a month or less probably does little harm.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 24, 2012:

Hello Paraglider-- always so good to see you. I've never been in the middle east but am told that the men smoke a lot and the women not so much-- also that hookahs or shisha or whatever is very popular. Didn't you do a hub on that once? Something is jogging in my memory. Whatever, I don't pay much attention to people smoking either as long as I don't have to inhale the smoke-- my allergic reaction is payback for all those years when I just smoked away and was quite nasty to anybody who had the nerve to ask me to stop or go elsewhere LOL

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 24, 2012:

Ahhh Diogenes--sorry you feel that way-- it isn't a contest, you know, and nobody is coddling smokers more than drunks-- In fact, the two addictions often go hand in hand.

When I quit drinking over thirty years ago, my smoking went from one and a half to two and a half packs a day and it took me many more years to give up smoking. I think if you had been a smoker as well as a drinker you would feel differently.

Dave McClure from Worcester, UK on March 24, 2012:

Hi Robie - the link with dementia I didn't know before, but it's not a surprise. Here in the Middle East, smoking is still very prevalent, and attitudes to it are similar to 1960s UK. Most bars and restaurants allow smoking, though it's slowly changing, at least in the public sector. I don't smoke myself, but am fairly tolerant of it, except in my own house which is strictly non-smoking. Any smoking guests have to use the balcony.

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 23, 2012:

robie: I'm no saint. I am a recovering alcoholic - clean 28 years! I got little sympathy from anyone over my addiction; smokers get too much leeway i think.


Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 23, 2012:

Absolutely agree LL-- the best way to get a kid to do something is to tell him he can't-- the old Tom Sawyer painting the fence thing :-) At least it is a smaller percentage of kids that starts to smoke these days than fifty years ago.

.... and thank you for sharing the story of your aunt--that is heartening-- and if I have the math right, she is still going strong at 85. Kudos to her.

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on March 23, 2012:

I think rebelliousness - even against their own well-being - will always be an operative phenomenon when it comes to teenagers. I think habits too difficult to break are what's going on with smoking seniors. But there is hope! My aunt smoked from when she was a teenager until she was about 65, and then quit. She's been smoke free now for over 20 years. :)

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 23, 2012:

Hi livelonger. Yes, the facts about smoking are kind of sobering. Nicotine is just another drug it seems and one with serious consequences at any age. I find it discouraging that knowing what we now know about tobacco, 20% of American teenagers still choose to smoke and these tend to be the same kids who are also doing other drugs and indulging in other risky behavior. I find it equally sad that 9% of people over 65 in this country still smoke--a statistic I ran across while researching this hub. Ahh well, it is what it is and people will do what they want. I'm just spreading the word:-) Thanks for stopping by. Always good to see you.

Jason Menayan from San Francisco on March 23, 2012:

Sobering information. I'm not a smoker myself, and neither is anyone close to me, but I think smokers should be well informed about all the risks before taking a puff, and your Hub provides that. And, yes, smoking by young people and older people are two very different phenomena, with different motivations, and some different health effects.

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 23, 2012:

Hi DAWNEMARS there are links between smoking and depression--and not just for teens. I know I became very depressed when I quit smoking twelve years ago and my Dr. put me on anti-depressants which I took for a couple of years. Evidently nicotine is an anti depressant for heavy smokers-- who knew? It's all about seratonin and dopamine etc. and the younger you start-- well the link for teens makes sense, doesn't it in light of what we are learning about brain chemistry. Thanks for the comment and the vote:-)

imw5-- congrats on quitting. I'm so glad I quit too, though I never could make it cold turkey--it took me multiple trys and lots of methods -- hats off to you.

diogenes--my parents smoked too and I had the opposite reaction from you-- I could hardly wait to get a cigarette in my hand -- but then, as my father used to say, " that's what makes horse racing" Now I am like you-- cannot bear the smell and in fact have an asthmatic reaction to being in a smokey room so can't really be around smoke or smokers much.

Sad to say, this kind of article doesn't help most people decide to quit--it is a very very powerful addiction. But the facts in this hub just might set a few people thinking. Quitting is hard-- most smokers don't realize just how hard it is till they try to quit the first time and fail. Don't be too hard on smokers, Diogenes. If it were easy, most of them would quit.

diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 23, 2012:

Hi robie: The more we get of these type of articles, the better. Anything to help the poor slobs hooked on this poison.

My parents and g-parents were all heavy smokers; as a result I have never had a cig in my mouth and absolutely despise the habit and those who will keep doing in in my environment.

The smell bothers me so much I will cross the street to escape the clouds of fug from these poor fools gathered outside shops, etc, getting their hourly fix.

They won't quit, though, despite all the medical warnings and the hundreds of thousands dying all the time from tobacco's effect.

Very good article SMOKERS, QUIT NOW!!!


lmw5 on March 22, 2012:

I smoked for 20 years. Glad I quit cold turkey back in February 2005.

DAWNEMARS from The Edge of a Forest in Europe on March 22, 2012:

Very informative hub. Now I am wondering about the links with smoking in one's teens and depression. Not a happy subject but interesting. Voted up. Thanks!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 22, 2012:

Hi ST-- well I think that ad is older than I am--I never saw it either, but I do remember white coated Doctors in magazine ads saying that Chesterfields were good for the digestion, however. It was a very different world

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on March 22, 2012:

The ad about smoking to decrease eating is so interesting...never saw that one. But that's what we were raised with. Have a cig, lose a pound. Wonderful hub!

Roberta Kyle (author) from Central New Jersey on March 22, 2012:

Thanks so much Steph-- your grandfather's story makes me think of my father in law who quit a two pack a day habit at the age of 55 but whose last ten years were spent tethered to an oxygen tank and on Prednisone. He died of congestive heart failure related to his COPD at the age of 88. That generation really was sacrificed to the big tobacco companies who popularized smoking and made fortunes even though it had become clear by the early '50's that smoking was lethal.

Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on March 22, 2012:

Robie, I have to admit I experienced a range of emotions reading this hub. Not because I smoke. I never have. But because my grandfather died of causes related to COPD and emphysema after years of smoking. He started when he was 11 years old, but did manage to quit when he was in his 50s. He lived to almost 94, but the later years of his life were significantly impacted by repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia (not to mention side effects of the Prednisone which affected his blood sugar and diabetes) and a dry cough that never went away.

Definitely a sobering hub. Helpful information on the hope for smokers who quit at any age. Rated up and bookmarking!