It has been 20 years since I quit smoking. And, according to a new study, that means that I can officially press the reset button on my health.

A new study conducted by researchers at the Center for Health and Aging at the Washington DC VA Medical Center found that most former smokers who quit at least 15 years ago have the same risk of heart failure and death as those who have never smoked. That's big news for folks like me, who wish they could rewrite certain portions of their youth. 

But alas, not all smokers get to push that reset button. Heavy smokers — those who smoked at least a pack a day for 32 years or more — still have an elevated risk for health issues and death, even 15 years after quitting.

For the study, researchers used the ongoing Cardiovascular Health Study of adults over age 65. This study includes data for 2,556 people who had never smoked, 629 current smokers and 1,297 former smokers who had quit at least 15 years earlier. About 300 of the former smokers identified themselves as heavy smokers.

When researchers adjusted the data for sex, age, medications and fitness level, the information confirmed that current smokers had a 50 percent higher risk of heart failure than people who had never smoked or former smokers. About 21 percent of non-smokers and 21 percent of former smokers experienced heart failure, suggesting a similar risk for those who never smoked and those who had quit for at least 15 years. Former heavy smokers, however, still saw a 30 percent risk of heart failure.

“When one smokes, it induces atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries,” said Dr. Ali Ahmed, the lead researcher for the study. “However, when one quits smoking, the buildup of plaque and risk of blood of clots decreases, allowing one’s cardiovascular risk to return to normal over time,” he added.

And while former heavy smokers may never be able to achieve the same cardiovascular risk profile as someone who has never smoked, they are still in better shape — literally — than current smokers when it comes to heart health, not to mention the risk for lung cancer

Bottom line: If you're currently a smoker, it makes sense to quit. Every day you put between you and that pack of cigarettes means better health for you now and down the road. 

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