It is well-known that smoking and tobacco use are among the leading causes of preventable disability and death worldwide. Efforts to promote smoking cessation have featured prominently on the public health agenda, though rates continue to remain high in many parts of the world. An often under-looked segment of the population that needs access to information about smoking cessation is senior citizens.
Like other age demographics, the elderly experience significant health risks associated with smoking. However, in addition to traditional concerns such as increased risk for lung cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and many others, older adults also experience risks that are specific to aging. Elderly who smoke are at risk for developing cataracts (the leading cause of blindness worldwide), loss of bone density among postmenopausal women, and increased risk for diminishing cognitive capabilities associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Tobacco users over the age of 65 have smoked longer than younger age groups, thus putting them at increased risk for detrimental health effects. It is possible that older adults are less likely to be aware of the potential health risks associated with smoking. A lack of awareness about the negative health effects of smoking may decrease the likelihood of quitting and lead to fewer quit attempts. Also, social issues associated with aging such as life stress, social isolation, and lack of community infrastructure to support positive aging can influence the likelihood that elderly smokers do not quit.
In terms of global smoking rates among the senior citizens, high-income countries have a 10% higher prevalence than low- and middle-income countries. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, a study found that among older smokers in seven major cities (Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santiago, Havana, Montevideo, Bridgetown, and Sao Paulo), current older smokers were more likely to be male, have begun smoking around the age of 17, and were more likely to smoke cigarettes than other types of tobacco. Smoking prevalence among the elderly was highest in Havana (31.8%), followed by Mexico City (16.5%), and Sao Paulo (15.8%). Promisingly, smoking rates steeply declined with age as the odds of smoking became 5.9 times lower among individuals over the age of 81.
It is important to consider that smoking is not just a young person’s habit. Efforts to reduce smoking among all age demographics, especially the elderly, should continue to be a vital consideration within the global public health community. Moreover, promoting smoking cessation and highlighting the significant health risks associated with smoking must persist across the life span.
Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at the Kent State University College of Public Health.