Want to look younger? Butt out.

A lot of things have changed for me in the last year. I’ve
transitioned from school into the work force, moved far from the
rest of my family and gotten engaged. But the biggest change I’ve
experienced is one most of my loved ones know nothing about.
After nearly five years of hiding my habit, I quit smoking back
in November. True, I’ve slipped up here and there, but all told, I
haven’t finished a pack, even counting the smokes I’ve bummed, in
the last eight months.
A lot of things have changed for me in the last year. I’ve transitioned from school into the work force, moved far from the rest of my family and gotten engaged. But the biggest change I’ve experienced is one most of my loved ones know nothing about.

After nearly five years of hiding my habit, I quit smoking back in November. True, I’ve slipped up here and there, but all told, I haven’t finished a pack, even counting the smokes I’ve bummed, in the last eight months.

And after nearly five years of hiding packs in the bottom of my purse, obsessively chewing mint gums when I knew an out-of-the-loop friend or relative was around and spraying on perfumes to cover the scent of my habit, it felt good to visit my family a few weeks ago without dreading the accompanying nic fit.

To keep myself away from cigarettes, I’ve been keeping myself distracted, and, when all else fails, I’ve been looking up all kinds of wonderful research that reminds me of the habit’s health risks.

Among the latest titles in the news, I’ve found a motivation that feeds one of my more base desires: like every woman, I want to continue looking young.

However, new research suggests smoking and excessive weight gain – I’m guilty on both counts – certainly don’t help. In fact, they can prematurely age human skin.

The study of 1,100 British women between ages 18 and 76, was conducted by researchers including Dr. Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology Unit at St. Thomas Hospital in London.

The group studied the lengths of telomeres, which are protective caps at the end of human chromosomes.

Telomeres normally shorten as cells age and divide, leaving the cell more vulnerable to damage with time.

But in smokers and obese women, the study found, telomeres were shorter. Though the length of telomeres varied widely in the study, they appeared longest in thin women with no history of smoking.

“Our results emphasize the pro-aging effects of obesity and cigarette smoking,” wrote researchers in the study, published in The Lancet’s June 14 edition. They also noted that obesity and smoking were the leading causes of preventable death in developed nations.

According to research results, a woman can lose about 8.8 years of life to obesity – defined as having a body mass index, or a fat to muscle ratio, of 30 or more – and about 4.6 years to smoking, even if she quits. Researchers used “pack-years,” a calculation involving the number of cigarettes smoked per day and the number of years spent as a smoker to determine that smoking a pack per day for 40 years would shorten a woman’s life span by an average of 7.4 years.

More research must be done on the topic, the researchers suggested, as this study focused on a limited segment of the population – white female identical or fraternal twins. They also suggested that larger numbers of people be tested due to the wide variance in telomere length.

Still, it’s a good reason for me to say no to the pack of cigarettes my colleague has sitting out on his desk, and an even better reason for me to remember that gym membership I just signed up for.

If you’re having trouble quitting, Saint Louise Regional Hospital holds a Smoking Cessation Program the first Monday of each month from 7pm to 9pm in the hospital boardroom and the administrative conference room. For details, call (408) 848-4914 or (408) 848-8601. In San Benito County, the San Benito County Tobacco Education Program offers smoking services contacts. They can be reached at (831) 636-4011.

If you want to quit or have kicked the habit and just need a bit of encouragement, you can also call the California Smokers’ Helpline at (800) NO-BUTTS for free one-on-one telephone counseling.

Finally, if you’re not sure whether you need to hit the gym, visit www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpa/bmi/calc-bmi.htm to calculate your own body mass index.

Leave your comments