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Apr 08, 2013

Breathing in Other People's Smoke is Dangerous for the Heart's Arteries

Study shows a direct relationship between the amount of secondhand smoke exposure and the amount of calcium deposits on the inner walls of the arteries.

Nonsmokers, beware. It seems the more you are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke—whether it was during your childhood or as an adult, at work or at home—the more likely you are to develop early signs of heart disease, according to research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 62nd Annual Scientific Session in San Francisco. This meeting brings together cardiologists and cardiovascular specialists from around the world each year to share the newest discoveries in treatment and prevention.

Researchers found that one in four people who reported being exposed to varying levels of secondhand smoke had evidence of coronary calcium calcification (CAC), a build-up of calcium in the artery walls (as seen on a low-dose computed tomography scan). It also seems the more someone is around secondhand smoke, the greater the amount of plaque build-up. After taking other cardiovascular risk factors into account, people classified as having low, moderate or high secondhand smoke exposure were 50, 60 and 90 percent more likely to have evidence of coronary artery calcification than those who reported minimal exposure.

Researchers say this study suggests exposure to tobacco smoke may be more dangerous than previously thought. Secondhand smoke exposure was found to be an equivalent or stronger risk factor for CAC than other well-established factors such as high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes.

“People who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke are at increased risk for heart attacks, similar to the risk [they would have with] high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” said Harvey Hecht, MD, associate director of cardiac imaging and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center and the study’s author. Earlier studies have linked secondhand smoke to a significant increase in acute cardiac events, including heart attack.

Dr. Harvey’s advice? “Make every effort to avoid secondhand smoke, even small amounts,” he said.

If you live or work with someone who smokes, consider sharing this information with your health care team so it is part of your medical record.

“We know heart disease is significantly accelerated by secondhand smoke exposure, so it should be included as a routine part of medical exams and discussions about heart disease and try to prevent it as best we can,” Dr. Harvey said. “If [patients] have significant exposure to secondhand smoke, along with other risk factors, they should also ask their doctor to consider ordering a coronary calcium scan.”

This study included nearly 3,100 healthy people between 40 and 80 years old who had never smoked (defined as having smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime). Low-dose non-gated CT scans were used to measure the amount of plaque in the coronary arteries in nonsmokers exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

Dr. Hecht said these results further underscore the need for enforceable public smoking bans and other measures to reduce passive inhalation of cigarette smoke. He encourages people to join efforts to eliminate smoking in public places, as well as in their homes and work environments.

Future research should focus on whether lowering or eliminating exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke can reduce new plaque formation and/or cardiac events in this group.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How dangerous is smoking?
  • Tobacco use remains the single most preventable cause of death, especially as it relates to heart disease.

  • How can I encourage a loved one to quit smoking?
  • Carbon monoxide, nicotine and other substances in tobacco smoke can lead to a build-up of plaque and fatty substances in the arteries and trigger symptoms of coronary artery disease. It’s important that they know the health risks to themselves and others. Offer encouragement and help them find resources and cessation programs to assist them in quitting the habit.

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