Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Rotting from the Inside

Smoking and the decline of the body. 

We all know smoking is bad for your health. It causes lung cancer and emphysema and contributes to heart disease. But that’s not the end of the list. Recently, Public Health England, a government organization, collected and analyzed research on the contribution smoking makes to other forms of internal body damage. Authored by Dr. Rachael Murray of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies and the University of Nottingham, the study looked at the correlation between smoking and the musculoskeletal system, the cognitive system, dental health, and vision.

And the results of various meta-analyses are exactly as grim as we might expect. (You can download the PDF HERE.)

Bones, Muscle, and Tissue

Smoking does steady harm to the musculoskeletal system of habitual smokers. Osteoporosis in mature smokers may result from a loss of bone mineral density, a condition for which smoking “is a long established contributing risk factor.” There are a number of ways smoking can affect bone mineral density, says the report, including “decreased calcium absorption, lower levels of vitamin D, changes in hormone levels, reduced body mass, increased free radicals and oxidative stress, higher likelihood of peripheral vascular disease and direct effects of toxic components of tobacco smoke on bone cells.”

Moreover, smoking and broken bones go together like apple pie and ice cream, or in this case, bangers and mash. Overall in the UK, “current smokers have been reported to be at a 25% increased risk of any fracture,” the report concludes. The author notes that the greatest risk for smokers are seen at the hip and the lumbar spine, and women smokers in particular “were at a 17% greater risk of hip fracture at age 60, 41% at 70, 71% at 80 and 108% at 90.” The risk of fracture and the increased bone repair time decreases slowly in former smokers, and it may take 5 to 10 years before abstinent smokers see any statistical benefits.

Researchers have also documented a causal relationship between cigarette smoking and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. But it is not known whether smoking cessation benefits existing patients with this condition.

As for soft tissue damage, a meta-analysis of 40 studies showed that smoking was associated with “a 33% increased prevalence of low back pain within the previous 12 months, 79% increased prevalence of chronic back pain and 114% increased prevalence of disabling lower back pain” among British smokers. Another study of 13,000 subjects showed that current and ex-smokers experienced up to 60% more pain in the lower back, upper neck and lower limbs than people who had never smoked. Smokers were also “74% more likely than non-smokers to have a rotator cuff tear,” Dr. Murray writes.

The Brain in Your Head

Chronic cigarette smoking hastens the decline in cognitive function that occurs with age. And there is a disturbing link between tobacco smoking and dementia: “A meta-analysis of eight studies published in 2008 reported that current smokers were 59% more likely than never-smokers to suffer Alzheimer’s disease and 35% more likely to suffer vascular dementia.” Earlier studies showed even higher risk percentages. Here, there is the possibility that smoking succession could reduce dementia onset. Two meta-analyses included in the report showed no association between former smoking and risk of dementia.

General cognitive impairment in adults over 50 is “consistently associated” with smoking, according to the UK report. “Faster declines in verbal memory and lower visual search speeds have been reported in male and female smokers aged 43 and 53, with the effect largest in those who smoked more than 20 cigarettes per day, independent of other potentially confounding factors.”

Dental Damage

Smoking is the primary cause of oral cancer, and the risk of developing it is three times less for non-smokers. Smoked and smokeless tobacco are linked to various non-malignant maladies of the soft and hard tissues in the oral cavity. Alcohol is a risk factor for oral cancer as well, “and is almost tripled in alcohol drinkers who smoke.”

Peridontitis, the inflammatory condition marked by bleeding gums and degeneration leading to tooth loss (and an associated greater risk of coronary heart disease) is three to four times as common in adult smokers. And although there are other confounding socioeconomic influences, smoking is also a risk indicator for missing teeth in older smokers and previous smokers. The increased peridontitis risk lasts for several years after smoking cessation.

As for cavities and general tooth decay (caries), “Although the association between smoking and prevalence of dental caries can be attributed to poor dental care and oral hygiene, a cross-section study with a four-year follow-up found that daily smoking independently predicts caries development in smokers.” 

A Dim View

Neovascular and atrophic age-related macular degeneration, the eye conditions that cause a gradual loss of vision, are causally related to cigarette smoking. "A recent meta-analysis reported significant increases in macular degeneration of between 78% and 358%, depending on the study design." Smokers tend to develop the disease ten years earlier than non-smokers, and heavy smokers are at particular risk.

Finally, a number of cohort and case-control studies show a statistically significant link between smoking and cataracts, the cloudy patches over the eye that cause blurred vision. In current smokers, the increased risk is pegged at about 50%. "Smoking cessation reduces risks over time, however, the larger the exposure the longer it takes for the risk to reduce and this risk is unlikely to return to that of a never smoker."

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