Researchers, led by Dr. Michael Howe from the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, Michigan, say that smokers tend to suffer heart attacks years earlier than non-smokers. They studied about 3,600 people who were hospitalized with a heart attack or unstable angina (pain caused by low blood flow to the heart).

The study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology, also showed that female smokers were more likely than male smokers to have a second heart attack or other heart problems in the months after the initial heart attack or angina.

Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a cardiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health: "Individuals who smoke are much more likely to have a heart attack, and will present with a heart attack a decade or more earlier."

“Even within a few days of stopping smoking, there is a reduction in (heart) risk. As time goes by, within one to two years much of that risk is gone for heart attacks,” he added. “From a coronary risk standpoint, there is an immediate benefit and that continues to extend over time.”

Ironically, smokers were less likely to have other health problems that are linked to heart risks, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

But Dr. Fonarow said that the study shows “you could have a heart attack in the absence of other risk factors if you smoke.”

He said the findings are just one more example of the heart dangers posed by smoking, but emphasized that kicking the habit can erase those extra risks: “It’s never too late to quit, and the benefits are very early."

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