Reminder to Smokers: Your Lungs Are Aging

A simple discussion of lung capacity appears to double the rate patients follow a doctor’s advice to quit smoking.

A study published online (March 7 in the British journal BMJ) suggests that if a doctor tells smokers their “lung age” — the age of the average healthy nonsmoker who would match them in breathing strength — they are more likely to stop smoking.

Using a spirometer, a device that measures how fast and how much air a person can breathe, British doctors tested 561 smokers, men and women with an average age of 53.

Half were randomly assigned to receive their results as lung age, explained with a chart showing lung capacity as it normally decreases with age. The other half were told the amount of air in liters they could force out in one second and were to return in a year “to see if there has been any change in lung function. ”The subjects with readings that suggested a medical problem were referred to their physicians.

Regardless of the results, all participants were advised to quit smoking, informed about government programs to stop smoking and told that the test of lung function did not show anything about other serious diseases that smoking causes.

Twelve months later, the scientists tested participants for carbon monoxide in their breath and cotinine in their saliva, reliable indicators of smoking. Of those who were not told their lung age 6.4 percent were no longer smoking, and 13.6 percent of those who knew their lung age had quit.

Dr. Gary Parkes, the lead author and a general practitioner in Hertfordshire, said that at first the smokers were not highly motivated to quit. More than 60 percent had made no plans to do so.

According to background information in the report, a physician’s simple advice results in a 4 to 6 percent rate of quitting.

“All smokers should have a lung function test,” Dr. Parkes said. “Sixteen percent of our sample had lung damage they didn’t know about. And communicating lung function as lung age is a good psychological tool for helping people make decisions about their own health.”

There was no evidence that subjects with poorer lung function were more likely to quit. A 45-year-old who was told her lung age was normal was as likely to stop as one told her lung age was 65. Although the study could not prove it, merely being presented with the facts of lung function in a vivid and understandable way was apparently enough to encourage people to stop smoking.

Aging LungsThe authors speculate that when told lung function is normal, a smoker feels encouraged to quit before it is too late, and when shown that it is abnormal is motivated to stop by the fear of further deterioration. The precise psychological forces remain unclear, but the scientists cite previous research that suggested that information presented as a prospect for gain is more persuasive than negative messages about costs or disadvantages.


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