Quitting smoking sharply reduces the risk of heart disease -- even if kicking the habit comes along with a few extra pounds, according to a long-term study out Tuesday.
It's no secret that those living in the throes of nicotine withdrawal can pack on extra padding in compensation. Likewise, extra weight has been linked to extra risk of heart disease.
The new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concurs that quitting smoking leads to weight gain: "recent quitters" gained an average of five to 10 pounds from one exam visit to the next, compared to one or two pounds for smokers, "never smokers," and "long-term quitters."
Nevertheless, the extra weight did not diminish the heart-healthy benefits of eliminating cigarettes, especially among those without diabetes.
"Among people without diabetes, those who stopped smoking had a 50 percent reduction in the risk for heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death," said senior author James Meigs, from Massachusetts General Hospital.
"And accounting for any weight increase didn't change that risk reduction," he emphasized.
The authors used data from a study in which thousands of participants have had a comprehensive medical exam every four to six years for the last four decades.
Focusing in on participant visits from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, they found, among more than 3,200 patients, there were 631 "cardio-vascular disease events" -- including strokes, heart attacks.
In both participants with and without diabetes, the incidence of these "events" was strikingly lower for those who never smoked or had quit than among smokers.
In an accompanying editorial, Michael Fiore and Timothy Baker of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health suggest doctors can use this new information to help encourage patients to quit.
"About 50 percent of female smokers and about 25 percent of male smokers are 'weight concerned,' which may discourage quit attempts and quitting success," they wrote.
Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the US, the researchers said. The CDC estimates that 19 percent of US adults smoke, and that about half tried to quit in 2010.