The arteries of teenagers who drink alcohol and smoke, even occasionally, begin to stiffen by age 17, according to new research.
The University College London study, whose findings were released yesterday, shows that arterial stiffness indicates damage to the blood vessels, which leads to heart and blood vessel problems – such as heart attacks and strokes – in later life.
The findings, published in the European Heart Journal, also show that a combination of high alcohol intake and smoking was linked to even greater arterial damage compared to drinking and smoking separately.
The researchers analysed data from 1,266 adolescents at ages 13, 15 and 17 from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children over a five-year period between 2004 and 2008.
“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 senior author, Prof John Deanfield.
However, the study also found that if teenagers stopped smoking and drinking during adolescence, their arteries returned to normal, suggesting opportunities to preserve arterial health from a young age.
During the survey, participants recorded the number of cigarettes they had ever smoked and were grouped by intensity from 'low' (0-20 cigarettes) to 'moderate' (20-99) to 'high' (more than 100). Exposure to parental smoking was also assessed.
The results showed that teenagers in the 'high' intensity smoking group had a relative increase of 3.7 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those in the 'low' smoking intensity group.
Participants also reported the age they started drinking alcohol and the frequency and intensity of alcohol consumption per month.
Heavy, medium, and light intensity drinkers were defined as consuming more than 10 drinks, between three to nine drinks, and fewer than two drinks respectively on a typical day that they were drinking alcohol. One drink equated to eight grams of alcohol (roughly 190ml).
The study found that teenagers showed a preference for beer over wine or spirits, and those who tended to 'binge drink' (have more than 10 drinks in a typical drinking day, with the aim of getting drunk), had a relative increase of 4.7 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries compared to 'light' intensity drinkers.
Participants in the 'high smoking and 'high' drinking intensity group had a relative increase of 10.8 per cent in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those who had never smoked and low alcohol consumers.