There's now more to the correlation between smoking and heart attacks — a new study reveals that for women, the risk is especially high. As reported by CNN in June, the study found that female smokers under 50 may have a higher risk of having a specific, serious type of heart attack than their male peers.
Published on June 24 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the report is the first of its kind in that it focuses specifically on the relationship between smoking, heart health and gender. Researchers studied 3,343 individuals who had been treated over five years, between 2009 and 2014, for a type of heart attack called an acute ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). According to the American Heart Association (AHA), this attack occurs when there’s a prolonged period of blocked blood supply in a large area of the heart, and it can be deadly when not treated promptly.
Of the STEMI patients studied, more than 46% of women and more than 47% of men were smokers. And from the data gathered, researchers found that the female smokers between the ages of 18 to 49 (yes, that young) had a 13 times higher risk of having STEMI than female non-smokers. Male smokers, meanwhile, had just an 8.6 times higher risk than male non-smokers.
Though smoking has long been known to be one of the most damaging activities we can do for our health, this study adds more proof to its dangers, particularly for women. “Women reading this study should be concerned if they smoke or someone close to them smokes and they are inhaling second-hand smoke,” Dr. Niket Sonpal, an NYC-based internist and gastroenterologist, tells Mic, adding that really, "any smoker reading this study should take it as a catalyst to speak to their doctor about quitting as soon as possible.”
As for why women have a greater risk of having this kind of heart attack, estrogen might be the cause, says Dr. Sonpal. “Smoking affects women’s estrogen levels, and estrogen is responsible for everything from protecting your heart to promoting the good health of your ovaries, uterus, and mammary glands,” he explains.
This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Ever Grech, an interventional cardiologist in the U.K. and the study’s co-author. “What is clear is that the protective effects of estrogen in young female smokers are overridden by the powerful impact of cigarette smoking,” said Dr. Grech, as reported by Reuters.
While the study's findings are clearly concerning, there is some positive news — researchers found that the risk of STEMI in women who had quit smoking for at least a month reverted to that of nonsmokers. “Like the research shows, the damage done by smoking can be reversed if patients quit and adopt a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Sonpal.
“I want to make one precaution," he says. "Many people will read [the study and think that] heart damage caused by smoking can be reversed and they will take it as an excuse to prolong their smoking.” Since it takes time for your heart to heal and for your body to detoxify, it’s important to not procrastinate on quitting smoking, Dr. Sonpal explains, noting, “The longer you wait to quit, the greater the damage."
Of course, stopping smoking can be really hard, so seek help from your doctor if you need assistance. But even if quitting doesn't happen immediately, try to take care of yourself in general. A person's risk of heart disease increases not just from smoking, but from other unhealthy behaviors such as lack of exercise and a diet that lacks essential nutrients, Sonpal says.
Most of all, keep a close eye on any unusual symptoms you feel. Heart attacks are scarily common; they're the most common cause of death for both women and men in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic. Yet because symptoms often aren't as obvious for women (they may have a heart attack without chest pain, but instead experience shortness of breath, pain in one or both arms, or dizziness), many women don't realize they need help until it's too late.
This study indicates, though, that it's possible that some of these women could've potentially prevented the attacks by quitting smoking. “Without a doubt, seeking counsel from your internist or cardiologist on quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Sonpal.