Teenagers who smoke or who binge on alcohol have signs of artery damage by age 17, a recent study shows.
Researchers found that 17-year-olds who had smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime or who drank more than 10 drinks on a typical drinking day had stiffer walls in their arteries.
In the long term, stiffer arteries can increase the risk for cardiovascular events, dementia, and death.
"Injury to the blood vessels occurs very early in life as a result of smoking and drinking and the two together are even more damaging, Dr. Marietta Charakida, who carried out the research at UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science but is now at King's College London, said in a statement.
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As reported in the European Heart Journal and at a major cardiology meeting, Charakida and colleagues analyzed data collected from 2004 to 2008 on 1,266 adolescents enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. Participants reported their smoking and drinking habits at ages 13, 15 and 17.
To assess the stiffness of the teens' artery walls, the researchers used a noninvasive device to measure the speed at which a pulse from the heart travels between the carotid artery in the neck and the femoral artery in the leg.
That speed is called the pulse wave velocity. A slower velocity is a good sign; it means the arterial walls are more elastic.
In 17-year-olds who had smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, the average pulse wave velocity was 3.7 percent faster than in teens who had smoked less than 20 cigarettes.
Teenagers who tended to binge drink, or drink more than 10 drinks in a typical drinking day with the aim of becoming drunk, had an average pulse wave velocity that was 4.7 percent faster than kids who drank no more than 2 drinks in a typical drinking day, the study showed.
Furthermore, the authors report, the combination of binge-drinking habits and smoking was linked to even greater arterial damage compared to heavy drinking and smoking separately. In these kids, the pulse wave velocity was 10.8 percent higher than in teens who smoked less and didn't binge drink.
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But while smoking in youth was associated with increased arterial stiffness, stopping during adolescence could restore arterial health. Seventeen-year-olds who had smoked in the past but were not current smokers had arterial health similar to never-smokers.
"Existing research suggests that regular binge drinking during the teen years can damage the developing brain," Dr. Aaron White, a senior scientific adviser at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told Reuters Health in an email.
"Findings from the current study suggest that the negative health effects of alcohol during adolescence could extend to the cardiovascular system," White said, adding that the findings are consistent with existing evidence that even a single night of binge drinking in adults can temporarily injure the heart.
An observational study like this one can only show associations; it can't prove that smoking or alcohol exposure actually caused arterial changes in these youngsters, the authors acknowledge. Also, they note, the data were reported by the teenagers themselves and might not always have been accurate.
Despite these limitations, they conclude, "Smoking exposure even at low levels and intensity of alcohol use were associated individually and together with increased arterial stiffness. Public health strategies need to prevent adoption of these habits in adolescence to preserve or restore arterial health."