The Effects of Smoking: Heart Disease

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Smoking is a factor in the development of heart disease, which is the number one cause of death worldwide. Cardiovascular disease affects all parts of the body, including the brain, other organs, and the limbs. The chemicals in smoke harden and narrow blood vessels, which then blocks the flow of blood throughout the body. These blockages can lead to sudden, and fatal heart attacks and strokes.

Table of Contents

The Damage Done

The effects of smoking on the heart number many. There are over 7,000 different chemicals present in cigarette smoke.

  • 250 of those chemicals are harmful
  • 69 of them, like arsenic and formaldehyde, cause cancer

Other chemicals adversely affect the heart, leading to many types of cardiovascular diseases. Smoking is not the sole factor that leads to CVDs. Poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, and obesity all contribute to the development of the disease.

What smoking does to your heart:

  • Inflammation in the arteries and blood vessels
  • Hardening and narrowing of the arteries
  • Damage to blood cells
  • Heart rhythm problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Bad cholesterol levels to go up, and good cholesterol levels to go down

The Risks of Smoking

Smoking contributes to heart disease because of the chemicals inherent in smoke. These chemicals, like hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia, all cause damage to blood vessels, arteries, and even to blood itself.

Damaged arteries and vessels restrict the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the body. This causes significant problems to other organs and their overall functioning. Despite the general harm that comes from smoking, the deterioration to the heart, and its surrounding systems is a significant factor in the development of CVD.

There are many types of cardiovascular disorders:

  • Coronary heart disease — Coronary heart disease is when plaque or blood clots block arteries that carry blood to the heart.
  • Cerebrovascular disease — Blocked arteries and blood vessels that go to the brain become blocked, causing strokes, both fatal and debilitating.
  • Peripheral artery disease — Blood stops flowing to other areas of the body, like the hands, feet, and legs, because of blocked or damaged arteries, depriving them of oxygen, which can cause infection, and lead to amputation.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm — A potentially fatal condition where a blockage in the aorta, the main artery that carries blood throughout the body, bursts, which can lead to death. Smoking is a known cause of abdominal aortic aneurysms.

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Stroke risk

Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, which is one of the major ways that it contributes to having a stroke. When there’s less oxygen in your blood, your heart has to work harder to pump the blood through your body compared to a non-smoker.


Nicotine and Heart Disease

While the effects of cigarette smoke on the cardiovascular system are well-known, the role nicotine plays on the heart is not so clear. Nicotine is only one chemical present in smoke. It is also responsible for addicting people to smoking.

Nicotine is:

  • Highly addictive
  • Both a sedative and a stimulant

The effects of nicotine on the body include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Raising blood sugar levels

Various studies claim different things about nicotine.

  • One study states that nicotine is a “tumor promoter” and has carcinogenic effects
  • Another says that while nicotine may contribute to cardiovascular diseases, and poses a risk for people who already have a CVD, it represents a lower threat than the other chemicals in smoke to people without CVDs
  • This same study also found that the nicotine in e-cigarettes poses less of a risk to people with CVDs than the nicotine in smoking
  • Another study states that nicotine doses in nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) have little to no adverse effect on people using them, which makes it not as harmful as other chemicals in smoke

The critical thing to remember about all these studies is that they are not definitive. A Surgeon General report found that nicotine, “increases heart rate, and coronary vascular resistance,” which means it does, “to some extent” increase, “cardiovascular risk in smokers.”

Compared to the proven risks that other chemicals in cigarette smoke pose to the cardiovascular system, the role of nicotine in contributing to these diseases is real but minimal.

E-Cigarettes: Harmful or Harm Reducing?

The study mentioned above had this to say about the role of e-cigarettes:

  • “If a patient … wishes to use e-cigarettes to aid quitting, it is reasonable to support the attempt.”

This statement though was taken from a policy paper released by the American Heart Association regarding the use of e-cigarettes as possible cessation tools.

The same paper cautions that e-cigarettes are, “unregulated, may contain low levels of toxic chemicals, and have not been proven as cessation devices.”

As e-cigarettes have only recently hit the market, some studies say:

  • E-cigarettes increase a person’s risk of heart attack

While other researchers have found that e-cigarette use among former smokers:

  • May help decrease hypertension, while also aiding in total tobacco cessation

The study linking e-cigarette use to heart disease mentions that “among former and current e-cigarette users”:

  • 3.6 percent of them had experienced a heart attack at some point

The chances for experiencing a coronary attack, though, were higher for everyday users of e-cigarettes.

  • 6.1 percent of everyday e-cigarette users had experienced a heart attack

This study looked at people who smoke and use e-cigarettes at the same time. It mentioned the prevalence of heart attacks among e-cigarette users, even though, “heart attacks that subjects reported are likely to have occurred before e-cigarettes became available in the U.S.”

Another investigation into e-cigarettes and their effect on the heart reached a more open-ended conclusion. It stated that “it is important to evaluate the cardiovascular safety of e-cigarettes,” as there is not yet any definitive evidence that they can cause harm to the heart.

At the other end of the e-cigarette controversy, researchers determined that e-cigs, “may help also smokers with arterial hypertension to reduce their cigarette consumption or remain abstinent.”

This study also found that switching from regular cigarettes to e-cigarettes is “unlikely to raise significant health concerns.”

These three separate studies only serve to illustrate the confusion surrounding e-cigarettes.

  1. One of them cautioned against the devices and their use.
  2. Another took the middle road and offered the conclusion that rather than being “harm-free,” e-cigarettes are “harm reduction” tools when compared to cigarette smoking.
  3. The other found positive benefits to e-cigarette use, while also pushing for further studies.

It appears that, as all these researchers have stated, more research and time is needed to determine what effects (negative and positive) e-cigarettes have on cardiovascular health.

Repairing and Preventing the Damage

Cardiovascular disease claims:

  • 17.9 million lives around the world every year
  • This number represents 31% of all deaths worldwide
  • 85% of these deaths are due to coronary infarctions and strokes

Smoking is not the only cause of CVD. There are other factors like an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, and over-consumption of alcohol.

Only, while any one of those habits alone does not directly lead to CVD, smoking is unique in that it does lead to coronary disorders. The good news is that the chances of a person developing coronary disease decrease as soon as they stop smoking.

After quitting:

  • A smoker’s chances of experiencing a heart attack drops within a year
  • Five years after cessation a smoker’s risk of stroke falls to the same level as a non-smoker
  • A person who has had a heart attack reduces the risk of having another

Quitting smoking is one way to decrease a person’s chances of developing a CVD. But even for people who do not smoke, exercising, eating healthy, and reducing stress levels can all prevent the onset of cardiovascular disease.

Published: January 28, 2015 Updated: May 10, 2019

The Effects of Smoking: Heart Disease
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One comment on “The Effects of Smoking: Heart Disease
  • John
    September 20, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    I think studies are starting to come out that link ecig/vaping that leads to more heart attacks, not sure if it is another “tobacco” scare tactic or if it is legit, and if heart attacks are linked to vaping, then it would make sense; Think about it! Do you really know what is in the bottle of ejuice that you are passing through your lungs? and since there is little control during vaping, then I would say a person may vape on their ecig 10x more then they typically would on a cigarette, maybe even more as I have seen people just sit and suck on that ecig from sun up until sun down. why does it really matter anyways? people are warned that they will die from cancer if they smoke, does that really stop them from smoking? sure, cigarettes are in decline because of ecigs, so choose your position, smoke, and die from slow cancerous death, or vape, and take on a higher risk of heart attack, and that is assuming the facts between vaping and heart attacks are true.

    If you are healthy, and wanted to buy life insurance, your life insurance policy has minimal costs, however, if you smoke, or even vape, then your costs skyrocket, for instance, a $100k policy would cost me $25/mo, but since I vape, that exact same policy would cost $100 month. Ironic that the insurance companies rip you off, even though, smoking related damage may not occur for many, many years do the road, and you could very well get in your car, and die as a result of an accident, and insurance companies want to rip people off because they are in the “risk” assessment business, wow….

    sure, charge me premium rates now…
    Because I am going to die in the future…
    We are all going to die anyways….
    (regardless of how, and when….)