By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Smokers without obvious signs of heart disease are more likely to have thickened heart walls and reduced heart pumping ability — conditions that increase risk of heart failure, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study also found that higher rates of cumulative cigarette exposure — measure of how much and how long people have smoked during their lifetime — were associated with greater heart damage.

Studies have long established that smoking leads to heart attacks and is associated with heart failure even in people without cardiovascular disease. However, none have found a clear mechanism by which tobacco may increase the risk of heart failure.

“These data suggest that smoking can independently lead to thickening of the heart and worsening of heart function, which may lead to a higher risk for heart failure, even in people who don’t have heart attacks,” said Wilson Nadruz Jr., M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“In addition, the more people smoke, the greater the damage to the heart’s structure and function, which reinforces the recommendations stating that smoking is dangerous and should be stopped.”

Even after accounting for factors such as age, race, body mass index, blood pressure, diabetes and alcohol consumption, smokers in the study of 4,580 participants had thicker heart walls and reduced pumping function, compared with nonsmokers and former smokers.

“The good news is that former smokers had similar heart structure and function compared with never-smokers,” said Scott Solomon, M.D., senior study author and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “This suggests that the potential effects of tobacco on the myocardium might be reversible after smoking cessation.”

The study is published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.