Risk of lung cancer death has risen dramatically among women smokers in recent decades

January 23, 2013

Female smokers have a much greater risk of death from lung cancer and chronic obstructive lung disease (COLD) in recent years than did female smokers 20 or 40 years ago, reflecting changes in smoking behavior according to a Special Article published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). The increase in risk of death from lung cancer and COLD in female smokers has been large enough to completely offset improvements in longevity from medical advances that have reduced death rates in the rest of the population over the last 50 years.

Women today smoke more like men than women in previous generations, beginning earlier in adolescence and until recently more cigarettes per day (consumption peaked among in the 1980s). To find out if these changing patterns have caused women's risk to converge with those in men, researchers, researchers led by Michael J. Thun, MD, recently retired as vice president emeritus of the (ACS), measured fifty-year trends in mortality related to smoking across three time periods (1959-65, 1982-88 and 2000-2010), by comparing five large contemporary studies with two historical ACS cohorts. In total the study included more than 2.2 million adults 55 years and older.

For women who smoked in the 1960s, the risk of dying from was 2.7 times higher than that of never-smokers. In the contemporary cohorts (2000-2010) the risk was 25.7 times higher than that of never-smokers. The risk of dying from COLD among female smokers was 4.0 times higher than that of never-smokers in the 1960s; in the contemporary cohort, this risk increased to 22.5 times higher than never-smokers. About half of the increase in risk of both conditions occurred during the last 20 years.

In , lung cancer risk plateaued at the high level observed in the 1980s, while the risk of death from chronic continues to increase for reasons that are unclear. Men and women smokers in the contemporary cohorts had nearly identically higher relative risks (compared to never smokers) for lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and other heart disease. This finding strongly confirms the observed prediction that "If women smoke like men, they will die like men."

The research also confirmed that quitting smoking at any age dramatically lowers mortality from all major diseases caused by smoking, and that quitting smoking is far more effective than reducing the number of cigarettes smoked. The study found smokers who quit by age 40 avoided nearly all of the excess smoking-related mortality from lung cancer and COPD.

"The steep increase in risk among female smokers has continued for decades after the serious health risks from smoking were well established, and despite the fact that women predominantly smoked cigarette brands marketed as lower in 'tar' and nicotine," said Dr. Thun. "So not only did the use of cigarette brands marketed as 'Light' and 'Mild' fail to prevent a large increase in risk in women, it also may have exacerbated the increase in deaths from chronic obstructive lung disease in male smokers, since the diluted smoke from these cigarettes is inhaled more deeply into the lungs of smokers to maintain the accustomed absorption of nicotine."

Another study appearing in the same issue of the NEJM looks at longevity among current, former, and never smokers in the nationally representative National Health Interview survey. That study, led by Dr. Prabhat Jha at St. Michael's Hospital at the University of Toronto, found that persistent lifetime smokers lose an average of about 10 years of life compared to never smokers. Smokers who die prematurely lose about 20 years of life.

"The findings from these studies have profound implications for many developing countries where cigarette smoking has become entrenched more recently than in the United States, said Dr. Thun. "Together they show that the epidemic of disease and death caused by cigarette smoking increases progressively over many decades, peaking fifty or more years after the widespread uptake of smoking in adolescence. The good news is the benefits of smoking cessation occur much more quickly and are substantial at any age."

Explore further: Women smokers who quit before 40 gain nine years in lifespan

Related Stories

Women smokers who quit before 40 gain nine years in lifespan

October 27, 2012
Women can add nine years to their lives by quitting smoking before the age of 40 but still face a 20-percent higher death rate than those who never smoked, a study said Saturday.

By age 45, smokers already at significantly higher risk of cancer death

September 13, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—A new Northwestern Medicine study shows that smoking during your middle-aged years dramatically increases your lifetime risk of not just getting cancer, but dying from it.

Early morning smokers have increased risk of lung and head and neck cancers

August 8, 2011
Two new studies have found that smokers who tend to take their first cigarette soon after they wake up in the morning may have a higher risk of developing lung and head and neck cancers than smokers who refrain from lighting ...

Stopping smoking is hard despite success of smoke-free legislation

April 20, 2012
The successful implementation of smokefree legislation in Hong Kong has led to an overall decrease in the total number of smokers but the remaining smokers who are finding it difficult to quit are going on to become "hardcore" ...

Could menthol cigarettes pose even higher stroke risk?

April 9, 2012
(HealthDay) -- Menthol cigarettes may pose an even greater risk for stroke than other types of cigarettes, especially for women and non-black smokers, says a new, large study.

Recommended for you

Scientists develop blood test that spots tumor-derived DNA in people with early-stage cancers

August 16, 2017
In a bid to detect cancers early and in a noninvasive way, scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center report they have developed a test that spots tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood and have used it to ...

Toxic formaldehyde is produced inside our own cells, scientists discover

August 16, 2017
New research has revealed that some of the toxin formaldehyde in our bodies does not come from our environment - it is a by-product of an essential reaction inside our own cells. This could provide new targets for developing ...

Cell cycle-blocking drugs can shrink tumors by enlisting immune system in attack on cancer

August 16, 2017
In the brief time that drugs known as CDK4/6 inhibitors have been approved for the treatment of metastatic breast cancer, doctors have made a startling observation: in certain patients, the drugs—designed to halt cancer ...

Popular immunotherapy target turns out to have a surprising buddy

August 16, 2017
The majority of current cancer immunotherapies focus on PD-L1. This well studied protein turns out to be controlled by a partner, CMTM6, a previously unexplored molecule that is now suddenly also a potential therapeutic target. ...

Researchers find 'switch' that turns on immune cells' tumor-killing ability

August 16, 2017
Molecular biologists led by Leonid Pobezinsky and his wife and research collaborator Elena Pobezinskaya at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have published results that for the first time show how a microRNA molecule ...

A metabolic treatment for pancreatic cancer?

August 15, 2017
Pancreatic cancer is now the third leading cause of cancer mortality. Its incidence is increasing in parallel with the population increase in obesity, and its five-year survival rate still hovers at just 8 to 9 percent. Research ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.