You're Never Too Old to Kick the Habit

Today's older adults grew up in the days when smoking was considered glamorous, and even healthful. Now we know better—but after a person has been smoking for decades, it can be a tough habit to break!

Vintage photo of woman smoking

When it comes to tobacco consumption, times have changed. Our attitude about cigarettes has evolved so far that when movie or TV directors want to capture the spirit of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, they often feature a smoke-filled public room with an ashtray at every desk. This often garners a laugh from modern audiences ... but smoking is no laughing matter.

According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking is the leading cause of preventable, premature death and illness in the United States. Almost half a million people each year lose their lives to the effects of smoking-related illnesses, such as lung and other cancers, stroke, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking also is linked to osteoporosis, vision loss, even Alzheimer's disease.

Many of today's older adults picked up the habit when we didn't know as much about the dangers of smoking as we do now. Smoking may have been an integral part of their lives for a long time. Back in the day, doctors endorsed cigarette brands in magazine ads. World War II Red Cross packages often included a pack of cigarettes. Celebrities, sports heroes and politicians touted their favorite brands. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Babe Ruth, even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble puffed happily away in TV cigarette commercials. That former acceptance of the habit is no doubt part of the reason that today, nearly 10 percent of Americans older than 65 are smokers. "Most older adults know that smoking is harmful, and many have tried unsuccessfully to quit, often a number of times. But stopping smoking is a difficult goal that still eludes many older smokers," says Erik Augustson of the National Cancer Institute.

Yet every day, older adults manage to kick the habit—and from that day forward, they improve their health and begin to feel better. According to the National Institutes of Health, 20 minutes after you quit smoking, your heart rate drops to more normal levels. Twelve hours later, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal. Abstain from tobacco for three weeks and your risk of heart attack begins to drop. Your lung function begins to improve. Coughing and shortness of breath continue to decrease. And the benefits continue to accrue:

  • One year after quitting, your risk of heart attack has been cut by half.
  • Five years after quitting, your risk of stroke decreases and continues to decrease.
  • Ten years after quitting, your chance of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a smoker.
  • Fifteen years after quitting, your risk of heart attack is about the same as a nonsmoker.

Here are several research-based tips for those who want to quit:

Think about the many benefits of quitting. Aside from the health benefits mentioned above, you'll have more energy, your home and clothing will smell better, you'll develop fewer wrinkles, your food will taste better, and your teeth will be whiter. Airplane trips will be a lot easier! And you will save a lot of money—more than $4,000 per year if you give up a two-pack-a-day habit. You will most likely save on insurance costs, as well. Write down a list of these benefits and keep it near smoking materials. Read it aloud before you reach for a cigarette.

Think of the benefits to others. You no doubt know that nonsmokers are irritated by the smell of smoke. It goes well beyond annoyance: When you smoke, those around you—your spouse, grandchildren, even your pets—are affected by secondhand smoke. Smoking even affects our nation's healthcare costs. For example, Medicare estimates that 10 percent of its budget goes toward smoking-related illness!

Set a date to quit and get ready for it. Throw out cigarettes, ashtrays, lighters and matches. Arrange to get help if you need it. Plan activities to take your mind off cravings. (November 19 is the Great American Smokeout, a good day to start. See the box at the bottom of this article for more information and resources.)

Don't try to go it alone. Join with friends, family members or a support group. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers the following resources:

  • Smoking Quitline at (877) 44U-QUIT or (877) 448-7848; or locate your state's quitline by calling (800) QUIT-NOW or (800) 784-8669.
  • Quit Smoking website (http://smokefree.gov).
  • Online counseling from the NCI's LiveHelp instant messaging service (https://livehelp.cancer.gov).
  • Also, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Be Tobacco Free website (http://betobaccofree.gov).

Be aware of trigger situations that might tempt you to smoke—alcohol, stress, certain times of day, or being around current smokers who might undermine your efforts to quit, either consciously or not.

Learn about smoking cessation programs that use counseling and/or medications to help you quit. Insurance companies and health plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, will cover certain treatments.

Exercise! Experts say going for a brisk walk helps people cope with withdrawal symptoms. And of course, exercise will become easier as you recover from the effects of smoking.

If you slip up, it’s not the end of the world. Try quitting again. Figure out why your efforts didn't pay off the first time and learn from that.

With the holiday season coming up, give yourself and your loved ones a great gift: the great news that you've quit smoking!

For more senior smoking cessation inspiration, visit the new National Institutes of Health resource, Quitting Smoking for Older Adults, and download the National Cancer Institute publication, Clear Horizons: A Quit-Smoking Guide for People 50 and Older


Great American Smokeout banner

Thursday, November 19, Is the Great American Smokeout

Sponsored by the American Cancer Society (ACS), this event encourages smokers to stop smoking for one day … and to take steps to extend that day to the next and beyond. This year's theme is "Quit Like a Champion," and the ACS reminds us: "Today's the day that quitters win." Visit the Great American Smokeout website to find a great collection of resources to help you quit.

Banner image: American Cancer Society


Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.