When you think of someone having stiff or hardened arteries, you probably imagine a middle-aged man with a bit of a habit for cigarettes, beer, and cheeseburgers. While it’s true that drinking and smoking do cause arterial stiffness, it can happen as early as age 17 in teenagers who drink and smoke. According to researchers at University College London (UCL), even very occasional use can cause damage to the blood vessels.
First, a little primer on the circulatory system. Arteries are blood vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients to all of your vital organs and limbs. The heart pumps blood through these vessels, allowing it to be circulated to the far reaches of the body. Each time the heart beats, called systole, it’s squeezing and pumping out blood. In the space between two beats, called diastole, the heart fills back up with blood. There is pressure exerted on the walls of the blood vessels and arteries every time the heart beats. If the arterial walls are compliant – meaning not stiff – there is less pressure on the walls and the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood. When the walls are still and hard, however, the heart has to work harder to pump blood through the arteries and the less blood can be circulated throughout the body. This leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, renal failure, heart attack, and stroke.
The UCL study, published in the European Heart Journal, showed that a combination of heavy drinking and smoking could cause even greater arterial damage compared to drinking and smoking separately. They looked at data from 1,266 adolescents between 2004 and 2008, divided into groups by the frequency of their smoking, either low, moderate, or high. Teens in the high-intensity smoking group had a relative increase of 3.7 percent in the stiffening of their arteries over the low group. They were also grouped according to alcohol consumption. Teens who were in the habit of binge drinking – having more than 10 drinks in a day – had an increase of 4.7 percent in arterial stiffening over the low-intensity drinking group. Those who were in both the high smoking and high drinking intensity groups had a relative increase of 10.8 percent in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those who had never smoked and those who were low alcohol consumers.
The good news is, if teens stop drinking and smoking while they are still in adolescence, their arteries can return to normal. Also, the age at which they started consumption didn’t appear to matter as much as the duration, so intervening as soon as possible could prevent any long-term damage.
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