Effects of Smoking on Cardiovascular Health

Over the course of the past several decades, the harmful effects of cigarette smoking have been a regular topic of discussion. Advertisements on television and radio featuring doctors’ endorsements and cartoon mascots are a thing of the past, having been banned in 1971. And in 2006, a federal court decision “concluded that the major U.S. cigarette companies had violated the federal racketeering laws, in part by fraudulently claiming that ‘low tar’ and ‘light’ cigarettes were less harmful when, in fact, the tobacco companies knew they were not.” With the potential to cause unparalleled damage to an individual’s cardiovascular health, smoking is responsible for nearly “1 in every 5 deaths in the United States each year.” Moreover, smokers “are 2 to 4 times more likely to get heart disease than nonsmokers,” and smoking “doubles a person’s risk of stroke.” However, it is worth noting that this is can all be largely mitigated by quitting smoking or not partaking in this harmful habit to begin with.

Although harmful to nearly every organ in the body, even the smallest amount of cigarette smoking can be particularly harmful to the heart and blood vessels. The chemicals in tobacco smoke not only damage your blood cells but also “the function of your heart and the structure and function of your blood vessels” — putting patients at higher risk of developing atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries, which is also known as hardening of the arteries. Over time, this plaque hardens and narrows the arteries, limiting “the flow of oxygen-rich blood” to one’s organs and other parts of the body.

Equally important, secondhand smoke — “the smoke that’s breathed out by a person who is smoking” or “that comes from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe” — can cause its own harm to the heart and blood vessels. Containing many of the very same dangerous chemicals inhaled by those who do smoke, secondhand smoke can damage the hearts and blood vessels of nonsmokers, greatly increasing “adults’ risk of heart disease.” Also harmful to children and teenagers; specifically those with asthma — secondhand smoke lowers good cholesterol, raises blood pressure, and damages heart tissues.

Furthermore, smoking can cause plaque to build up in the coronary arteries — “arteries that supply blood to the heart” — in turn, causing patients to develop ischemic heart disease. Heart disease is often correlated with “chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmias, or even death.” Compounded by additional risk factors like bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, and overweight or obesity, a smoker’s risk of heart disease can escalate immensely.

As a major cause of cardiovascular disease, smoking is a leading cause of stroke. With the potential to result in permanent brain damage, disability or death, “a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.” Strokes can be avoided by quitting or refraining from smoking, managing cholesterol, and controlling blood pressure.

Additionally, smoking puts patients at an increased risk for peripheral arterial disease. This is a condition in which “plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs.” Individuals living with peripheral arterial disease are at high risk for “heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.” Peripheral arterial disease may also result in “vascular amputation”. And smoking is very closely linked to the development of peripheral arterial disease, with “approximately 90 percent” of peripheral arterial disease patients having had a history of smoking. Individuals who smoke “even half a pack of cigarettes a day may [be at] increase[d]… risk of having [peripheral arterial disease] by up to 50 percent.” However, it is important to note that “up to 40 percent” of peripheral arterial disease patients are asymptomatic, often leaving the condition misdiagnosed. Additional risk factors for peripheral arterial disease include high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, diabetes, high cholesterol, and being over the age of 60.

All in all, smoking results in lasting and unhealthy effects to a patient’s cardiovascular health. Causing an instant and long-term rise in blood pressure and in heart rate, reducing blood flow from the heart and the amount of oxygen that reaches the body’s tissues, doubling the risk of stroke, damaging blood vessels, and increasing one’s risk for blood clots, smoking unnecessarily and avoidably harms the body. And although a difficult feat, quitting smoking — according to the AHA — “reduces the risk for heart disease, the risk for repeat heart attacks, and death by heart disease by half.” Moreover, quitting smoking can help patients significantly to manage “many key contributors to heart attack” like atherosclerosis, blood clots, and abnormal heart rhythms. After overcoming the physical nicotine addiction and habit of smoking, an individual’s smoke-free life can help to set them on the necessary path for better cardiovascular health.

About the Author

Azadeh Beheshtian

Azadeh Beheshtian is board certified in cardiovascular disease and internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She specializes in interventional cardiology and peripheral artery disease, with a focus on women’s heart health.