ATLANTA - Quitting smoking can turn back time.
A year after kicking the habit, smokers' arteries showed signs of reversing a problem that can set the stage for heart disease, according to the first big study to test this.
The improvement came even though smokers gained an average of 9 pounds after they quit, researchers found. Their levels of so-called good cholesterol improved, too.
The new research shows these people gain a health benefit even though they pick up pounds that they hope can be shed once they've gotten used to not smoking, he said.
Smoking is one of the top causes of heart disease, and about one-third of smoking-related deaths in the United States are due to heart disease.
Quitting is known to lower the risk of developing or dying of lung cancer. This is the first major clinical trial to show it quickly improves artery health. Results were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and presented at the group's annual conference yesterday.
In the study, 1,500 smokers were given one of five methods to help them quit; a sixth group received a dummy treatment.
One year after smokers quit, doctors did ultrasound tests to see how well blood vessel linings relaxed and handled blood flow. Hardening of the arteries is an early step to heart disease. Using a tourniquet, they stopped blood flow in the forearm for a few minutes, then measured how a major artery responded when the flow was restored.
Doctors found that artery function improved 1 percent in the quitters.
"It's a small improvement at one year. The question is, do these folks keep getting better?" said Dr. Alfred Bove, a Temple University heart specialist.
The study is continuing another two years to give an answer.