Smoking is Bad News for Women as They Go Through Menopause

Patient Expert

Here's a bad combination - menopause and smoking. One of those issues you can't do anything about, but the other - smoking - is something you can change. But why should you?

The North American Menopause Society points out that smoking leads to an earlier menopausal transition (as much as two years if you're a heavy smoker) and can cause you to have more hot flashes (and those hot flashes can be more severe than what nonsmokers will experience). Additionally, smoking increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer and diabetes even higher than what you naturally will face by going through menopause.

Need another reason? The American Lung Association (ALA) warns that middle-age women are increasingly being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an incurable progressive lung disease that is the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer. While COPD was originally thought of as a disease that strikes older white men, that's no longer the case. The number of deaths among women has more than quadrupled since 1980, according the American Lung Association's new report, "Taking Her Breath Away: The Risk of COPD in Women." Furthermore, more women than men have died from the disease each year since 2000.

The prevalence of COPD increases with age. "Women have higher rates of COPD than men throughout most of their lifespan, although it appears that they are especially vulnerable before the age of 65," the report states. "When controlling for difference sin ethnicity, income and education, women ages 45-64 are 51 percent more likely than men of the same age to have the disease."

So what is COPD? This disease has two main conditions - chronic bronchitis and emphysema - that can coexist. The chronic bronchitis causes the lining of the airways to become swollen and results in a lot of mucus. Emphysema causes the walls of the lung's air sacs to break down, the air spaces to get bigger and stale air to get trapped. COPD often isn't diagnosed until it is in an advanced stage since people often don't identify the early warning signs correctly.

Smoking is the major cause of COPD, although pollution and air irritants can cause COPD. Some people have a rare inherited form of COPD. COPD can worsen suddenly when a person has lung infections such as a cold or some other illness or is exposed to harmful pollutants. These can lead to hospitalizations as well as the accelerate the loss of lung function.

The ALA points to the increased number of women who smoke as being a key factor in the steep rise in COPD among our gender. Women also may be more biologically susceptible to lung damage caused by tobacco smoke as well as environmental pollutants. Additionally, women are less likely to be correctly diagnosed with COPD. Once diagnosed, they often have a harder time quitting smoking, experience more disease flare-ups and need more health care resources.   Women who have COPD also often experience chronic conditions such as depression and have a lower quality of life.

"Fortunately, there are a number of positive steps that can be taken to make a difference in the burden of COPD in women now," the ALA report states. The association recommends expansion of laws and policies that reduce tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke, an increased focus on gender-specific treatment in research and clinical trials to learn more about COPD and women, improved health care practices that successfully identify COPD, and referrals to tobacco cessation counseling as well as pulmonary rehabilitation.

So if you're a middle-aged woman, it's time to reevaluate a smoking habit. Take steps now to quit in order to protect your health as you enter a new phase of your life.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

American Lung Association. (2013). Taking her breath away: The risk of COPD in women.

Gass, M. (2012). Smoking makes menopause misery. The North American Menopause Society.