Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Passive Smoking Ages Children’s Arteries

Exposure to passive smoking in childhood causes irreversible damage to the structure of children’s arteries, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal.

The thickening of the artery walls places these children at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes in later life. The study authors, led by Dr Seana Gall of the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, estimate that exposure to both parents smoking in childhood adds 3.3 years to the age of blood vessels when the children reach adulthood.

The researchers found that carotid intima-media thickness – a measurement of the thickness of the innermost two layers of the arterial wall – in adulthood increased from an average of 0.637 mm to 0.652 mm when both parents smoked.

“While the differences in artery thickness are modest,” Gall said, “it is important to consider that they represent the independent effect of a single measure of exposure – that is, whether or not the parents smoked at the start of the studies – some 20 years earlier in a group already at greater risk of heart disease. For example, those with both parents smoking were more likely, as adults, to be smokers or overweight than those whose parents didn’t smoke.”

However, the study didn’t show an effect if only one parent smoked. “We think that the effect was only apparent with both parents smoking because of the greater overall dose of smoke these children were exposed to,” Gall said.

Gall and her colleagues had previously found that exposure to passive smoking in childhood reduced the ability of the main artery in the arm to dilate in response to blood flow in adulthood. “Together, these studies suggest a direct and pervasive effect of exposure to environmental cigarette smoke during this period on both the vascular structure and function in adulthood,” the authors wrote in the paper.