Your bones – your skeleton –what gives the body form to function is very important. And it is not something you think about when you consider the many medical consequences of smoking.
But I don’t need to worry about this osteoporosis thing until I’m in my 60’s right?
Wrong. Many people begin smoking while in high school, and although they know about many of the more widely known concerns with smoking like lung cancer, one thing they may not realize is that their bones will continue to grow and develop until about age 30. And so, if you are smoking as a teenager, you risk not reaching the most bone mass you could; and hence, the best bone strength and health you could have for life.
But what exactly is happening to the bones in smokers?
“Free radicals” – compounds that are found in cigarette smoke - are harmful to the body as they engage in the breakdown of our body’s natural defense systems. While these free radicals attack the osteoblasts which are the building blocks of bone, they also upset the balance of hormones in the body –particularly estrogen- which is so important in building bone and maintenance of the body’s framework in both women and men. For women entering menopause, the natural loss of estrogen compounds the problem for women who smoke. These free radicals also lead to an increase in the hormone cortisol and the hindrance of the production of calcitonin – both of which tend to deter bone growth. And, again the concern about smoking’s effect on the body’s vascular system cannot be overlooked here. Bones need to have a steady supply of blood; and smoking affects the blood vessels, which in turn, leading to nerve damage, and consequently, falls and fractures. In fact, smokers increase their risk of fractures by a factor of 2; and the heavier you smoke, the risk just goes up from there. Smokers over age 65, have a 30-40% chance of hip fracture, and those who suffer such a fracture have a 25-30 % chance of dying within the first year.
You’ve heard it before, like so many medical concerns, quitting smoking is the NUMBER ONE thing you can do to protect so many aspects of your health, and your bones are no exception.
What happens if I quit?
There is some research to suggest that your bone density may improve upon stopping smoking. Certainly the damage being caused by active smoking stops. Overall health and circulation supporting good overall functioning improves. Your ability to be physically active and build strength and improve skeletal support all improve. If you have quit already, take a moment to appreciate all the good things that are happening.
However, the ultimate question when considering the consequences of smoking is not so much what happens when I do quit – but rather, what happens if I don’t?
Barb Dallavalle, MA, LP