Smoking and Heart Disease - A Guide to Stop Smoking

Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UK, closely followed by cancer and strokes. These are often caused by a variety of factors, such as genetics and lifestyle but smoking accounts for a great many of these deaths.

If you smoke you are twice as likely to have a heart attack as a non-smoker!

So what does smoking do to your heart?

The effect of smoking on the heart

Smoking affects the heart and the surrounding blood vessels. Nicotine in cigarette smoke causes adrenaline to be released which acts as a stimulant. This results in heart palpitations plus an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure.

This also means that your heart doesn’t perform to its full capacity.

It causes cells to constrict which then narrows the blood vessels. This means a reduction in oxygen content in your body and extra work for your heart.

In other words, it places an extra strain on your heart which forces it to work harder! And this strain also causes your blood pressure to rise which increases the risk of a stroke.

Cigarette smoke contains numerous toxins which include carbon monoxide. This carbon monoxide reduces the effectiveness of your red blood cells and their ability to transport oxygen to other areas of the body. This means that their efficiency is reduced as a result of this.

Another side effect of these toxins is that of an increase in the ‘stickiness’ of your blood. Your blood contains platelets (colourless cells) and fibrinogen (a type of protein) which increase as a result of smoking. This causes your blood to thicken which enables the build up of fatty deposits and leads to a narrowing of the blood vessels.

Basically, your blood is more likely to clot which increases the risk of coronary heart disease, angina or a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

What else does it do?

It also causes the following to happen:

  • Damage to the walls (lining) of your arteries leading to the build up of a fatty material along these walls. This is called arteriosclerosis. This build up decreases the amount of space blood has to flow through.
  • Reduces antioxidant levels: these are responsible for limiting the damage caused in the body by free radicals.
  • Raised blood pressure which increases the risk of a stroke.
  • Increases LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels.
  • Increased risk of developing an abdominal aortic aneurysm.
  • Constricts the small blood vessels which impacts upon the circulation, especially in the feet. Smokers find that they feel the cold more than non-smokers.
  • Increased risk of developing peripheral vascular disease (PVD) which results in blocked blood vessels in the legs.

Around 1 in 4 smoking related deaths is caused by heart disease. (Source: National Heart Forum, 2006)

Smoking along with diabetes, high cholesterol and raised blood pressure are four major risk factors for heart disease. These all increase the risk of atherosclerosis (build up of plaque in the arteries).

Note: Many people assume that arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis is one and the same thing but there is a difference between the two.

Arteriosclerosis refers to the hardening of any of the arteries, usually as a result of high blood pressure.

Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis and refers to the hardening of an artery, usually from a build up of fatty deposits (plaque).

If you have a heart condition which has been caused by smoking then you will find that you have a reduced oxygen supply to your heart. This causes it to work less efficiently. Your heart doesn’t have enough oxygen to pump blood to your muscles and organs which means that they don’t function as well.

So if you have angina for example then you will experience chest pain during physical activity but not at rest. This is caused by a narrowing of your coronary arteries (atherosclerosis).

But if you stop smoking then you will notice an improvement almost immediately. Your supply of oxygen will increase 24 hours after quitting and your heart will find it much easier to pump blood (and oxygen) around your body.

This means that you will be able to be active without needing your medication. You may be able to get by on less medication or none at all.

And even better, your risk of a heart attack will decrease.

Some research studies have shown that your risk of a heart attack reduces to that of someone who has never smoked – within 5 years of quitting.

Want to know more? Then visit our Stopping Smoking section.

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