The heart is one of the hardest working muscles in the body, as well as the most important, which is why it’s essential to take good care of it. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death of both women and men in the United States and is the leading cause of disability.
While there are many factors that increase your risk of having cardiovascular disease that you cannot change about yourself – genetics, sex, race, ethnicity, family history, etc. – many deaths from cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks, strokes, and heart disease) can be prevented through healthier habits. Making a few key changes can prolong your life by many years! One large issue that can be easily controlled to help reduce your risk is abstaining from tobacco use. According to the CDC, 25% of adults with ID smoke as opposed to 17% for adults without disabilities.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the US. Smoking tobacco allows for a build-up of plaque and other deposits to gather in the arteries (and lungs), thus blocking part of the artery and slowing the flow of blood to the heart. The heart then has to work harder to push blood through the narrower clogged arteries to the rest of body, which leads to high blood pressure. When the plaque builds up to become a full blockage in an artery is when a heart attack, stroke, or blood clot elsewhere in the body occurs and can be deadly.
Quitting smoking can be difficult for the general population; however when a person with an intellectual disability starts smoking tobacco quitting can be especially difficult. There are fewer programs and resources tailored for individuals with ID that explain the full risks, so they may not understand the importance behind quitting and the range of effects it can have on their bodies. Individuals with ID can also have a harder time controlling nicotine urges. This can cause outbreaks of bad behaviors towards the caregiver, family member, etc. who is trying to help them to quit. Sometimes cigarettes have even been used as a reward with an individual with ID to help reinforce another good behavior, which can lead to more confusion about why smoking is harmful.
Although resources are scarce, there are good tobacco cessation programs out there to help individuals with ID to quit. I Can Quit was developed by Monish University in Australia to help facilitate tobacco cessation sessions with the use of their guidebook and the Michigan Department of Community Health has also worked to create tobacco cessation resources for individuals with disabilities. Learn more about their resources and the effects of tobacco through The Arc’s HealthMeet webinar on tobacco cessation.
Although quitting can be difficult for individuals with ID, starting to smoke hopefully won’t even be considered if the correct information is communicated early on. However, it’s never too late to quit – your heart, arteries and lungs will begin to repair themselves almost immediately after you stop. It only takes about 20 minutes after your last cigarette for your heart rate to start to decrease back to a normal level. Teaching individuals these facts and leading by example will give them the knowledge to know the harmful effects that smoking can have before they begin – which is invaluable to their heart and overall health.