A study published in the European Heart Journal has people worried about teenagers who smoke and drink alcohol. While consuming these products might seem like a normal part of teenagers growing up, critical changes are bound to happen to their arteries when they partake in these activities.

The study

The results of the study were alarming. Tests displayed that the participant’s arteries had started to stiffen by 17. These changes can have an impact on the life of the person in many ways; they have a higher chance of heart and blood vessel problems, which can include stroke and heart attack down the road in life. Surprisingly, the research showed that the teens’ arteries returned to normal when they cut out smoking or drinking.

1,266 teens participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), which polls the health of 14,500 families in the Bristol area. The data that was taken between 2004 and 2008 was then studied by researchers. The teens were asked about their smoking and drinking between the ages of 13, 15 and 17. They also underwent physical testing to see if there had been any stiffening of the arteries.

Teens noted how many cigarettes they’ve ever smoked. It was separated into three categories: ‘low’ (0-20 cigarettes) to ‘moderate’ (20-99 cigarettes) to ‘high’ (more than 100 cigarettes). The teens were also asked if their parents smoked. Teenagers in the high smoking group were found to have an increase of 3.7% in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those in the low grouping.

Participants also stated at what age they started drinking alcohol and how much they consumed within a month. If consumed more than ten drinks, they were grouped in the heavy category. Between 3-9 drinks was medium and fewer than two drinks a day when they were consuming alcohol was categorized as light. The research showed that teens preferred beer over wine or spirits.

Those who tended to have more than ten drinks had an increase of 4.7% in the stiffening of their arteries compared to ‘light’ consumers. Those in both the high smoking and high drinking groups had a relative increase of 10.8% in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those who had never smoked and were low alcohol consumers.

What the researchers say

“We found that in this large contemporary British cohort, drinking and smoking in adolescence, even at lower levels compared to those reported in adult studies, is associated with arterial stiffening and atherosclerosis progression,” said the study’s senior author, Professor John Deanfield (UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science).

“However, we also found that if teenagers stopped smoking and drinking during adolescence, their arteries returned to normal – suggesting that there are opportunities to preserve arterial health from a young age.”

Dr. Marietta Charakida, who carried out the research at the UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science, said: “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. Although studies have shown teenagers are smoking less in recent years, our findings indicated approximately one in five teenagers were smoking by the age of 17. In families where parents were smokers, teenagers were more likely to smoke.”

“Governments and policy-makers need to devise and implement effective educational strategies, starting in childhood, to discourage children and teenagers from adopting smoking and bad drinking habits. They should also be told about the benefits of stopping these unhealthy behaviours.

“The age at which participants started drinking alcohol was not associated with arterial health, suggesting that duration of exposure might not be that important at this young age,” added Dr. Charakida. “In addition, no beneficial effect of low alcohol consumption was found with regards to arterial health.”

Prof Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the research, told the BBC that the fact damage could be reversed was an “encouraging indication.”

He said: “It’s never too late to make changes that may literally end up saving your life. This study suggests that the damage to arteries can occur even in the young, leading to serious trouble later on in life. Quitting smoking is the single best thing you can do to protect your heart. If you do drink, try to ensure that it’s not to excess and within the recommended guidelines.”