This deterioration in quality of life continues even after quitting. In fact, heavy smokers typically have the health-related quality of life of someone 10 years older than themselves, the researchers said.
"An especially large negative effect was seen for heavy smokers [more than 20 cigarettes daily], who lost about 10 years of their life expectancy, and those who survived experienced a significant decline in their quality of life," said lead researcher Dr. Arto Y. Strandberg, from the University of Helsinki.
The report was published in the Oct. 13 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.
For the study, Strandberg's team collected data on 1,658 men born between 1919 and 1934 and interviewed in 1974. Over 26 years of follow-up, 372 men had died. Men who had never smoked lived an average of 10 years longer than men who smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day, the researchers found.
Non-smokers also scored better on quality-of-life measures, compared with smokers. "Especially significant differences were seen in physical functioning, general health, vitality and bodily pain," Strandberg said. "The impairment of the physical functioning score of smokers was equal to a 10-year age difference in the general population."
Quality of life was worse even among men who stopped smoking. "On the individual level, the bad news is that while beneficial compared to continued smoking, cessation of smoking after midlife could not fully recover the higher risk in mortality and poorer health-related quality of life seen in smokers," Strandberg said.
"Smoking is not only a risk factor for future illness or death, it is present in the smokers' everyday life," Strandberg said. "The earlier one quits, the better; the best option being not to start at all."
Dr. David M. Burns, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and author of an accompanying journal editorial, said that smoking is no way to live.
"Many folks, particularly young folks, say, 'I want to live now, and I don't care if I die early when I'm old -- I really want to live hard, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,'" Burns said. "That's not what smoking does to you. What happens is it makes you old before your time."
Smoking does not enhance your lifestyle, Burns added. "What it is, is a route to an early old age."
Three additional reports in the same journal issue reviewed hospital programs that help people quit smoking and concluded that:
- Counseling patients on stopping smoking can be effective if there is follow-up for more than a month after hospital discharge, according to a Harvard report.
- Hospital smoking cessation programs included in referrals to cardiac rehab appear to increase the rates of quitting, according to researchers from Emory University in Atlanta.
- Paying clinics $5,000 to refer 50 patients to quit line programs appears to increase the number of referrals compared with clinics not offered the incentive, according to University of Minnesota scientists.
For more on smoking, visit the National Institutes of Health.