Stopping smoking is one of the most important ways to ensure healthy ageing

You are never too old to benefit from quitting smoking – that’s the message from Associate Professor Natalie Walker, Leader of the Tobacco and Addiction research group at  the National Institute for Health Innovation (NIHI), managed by UniServices.  

World leaders in the conduct of large community-based randomised trials exploring new ways to support people to quit smoking, over the last 15 years researchers at NIHI have undertaken research involving almost 20,000 people who smoke. 

Examples of interventions they have investigated include e-cigarettes, mobile apps, text message behavioural support, cytisine (a plant-derived alkaloid, found in plants such as the NZ kōwhai tree), different combinations of nicotine replacement therapy, and use of financial incentives.

“From this wealth of research, one thing is clear -age is not a barrier to successfully quitting smoking,” says Dr Walker. 

“In general, about half of our trial participants are over the age of 45 years - the oldest person in our most recent trial was 82. 

“People who join our trials tend to already know that stopping smoking is one of the most important ways to ensure healthy aging. However, we know some older people think that there’s no point trying to quit smoking because ‘the damage is already done’. This is simply not true.” 

Dr Walker explains that although stopping smoking before the age of 35 has the greatest health gain, stopping at any age can produce immediate health benefits, and increase life expectancy. For example, within a month of stopping smoking lung function and circulation increases, making daily activities much easier and reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Even smokers who have developed tobacco-related diseases stand to benefit from quitting smoking. For example, every step of the cancer pathway – from diagnosis to treatment - smokers with cancer stand to benefit from quitting tobacco. 

Quitting smoking increases the likelihood that chemotherapy will be successful, decreases the risk of complications from radiation therapy, decreases the risk of post-operative complications, and improves quality of life.  

“We know our research is making a difference to the health of the nation”, says Dr Walker, “ it has informed New Zealand’s smoking cessation treatment guidelines used by healthcare professionals throughout the country. Furthermore, our trials are published in world-leading medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet, and incorporated into evidence-based reviews (such as those produced by the Cochrane Collaboration), meaning we have global impact.” 

Smoking cessation  research at NIHI is made possible through research grants and fellowships from funders such as the Health Research Council, the Heart Foundation, the Ministry of Health, and the Oakley Mental Health Research Foundation.

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