Children Hurt by Secondhand Smoke

Thick arteries evident in children exposed to parental smoking

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Parents awaiting the birth of their child often do all kinds of things in preparation, such as child-proofing their home. But for parents who smoke, stopping may be the healthiest thing they can do.

Recent research showed that children whose parents smoke may be at greater risk for heart attack and stroke as adults, even if they, themselves, do not smoke.

Exposure to secondhand smoke over the years showed a significant effect on these children's vascular health, the researchers found.

"Ask your doctor for help to stop smoking."

This prospective study, led by Seana Gall, PhD, of the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, involved looking at data of children aged 3 to 18 for up to 25 years. These children were born in Australia and Finland.

Thickening of the arteries (the vessels that carry blood to the heart) makes it more difficult for blood to flow through. This is called atherosclerosis. When the vessels become partially clogged or completely clogged, a person can have a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Gall and colleagues found that the carotid intima-media-thickness (IMT) — a measurement of the innermost two layers of the arterial wall — was about 0.015 mm thicker in people who had been exposed to both parents smoking than in people who grew up in households where their parents did not smoke. IMT is a validated non-invasive measurement of atherosclerosis. Study participants had IMT measured through ultrasound.

The study did not find a similar difference in children who reported being exposed to only one parent who smoked.

The researchers noted that this additional thickness means that children whose parents smoked had blood vessels that were about 3.3 years older than children not exposed to parental smoke.

Data was collected using questionnaires of 2,401 children in Finland, and 1,375 children in Australia. Ultrasound was used to measure the IMT once when the children were grown.

Children whose parents did not smoke had artery walls that measured about 0.637 mm thick. Children whose parents had smoked had artery walks about 0.652 mm thick.

The researchers tried to take into account variables such as age, sex, education and adult cardiovascular factors, but noted that they could not account for all potential variables.

They did find that children whose parents smoked were more likely to grow up to be smokers and to be overweight.

The study's authors admitted that there were limitations to their study, including that in Finland, parents answered the questionnaire about their own smoking habits, and in Australia, the children answered the questions about their parents smoking. Furthermore, there was no data available as to how much parents smoked.

This study was published March 4 in the European Heart Journal.

In an editorial in the journal, Edmund Lau and David Celermajer of Sydney Medical School in Australia wrote that objective measures of environmental tobacco smoke exposure were not included in the study. However, “… the study by Gall et al sheds further light that childhood exposure to cardiovascular insults can lead to long-term changes in arterial structure in adulthood,” they wrote.

There were a variety of funding sources for the study, including the Commonwealth Departments of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, and Health; the National Heart Foundation; and the Commonwealth Schools Commission. No conflicts of interest was declared.

Review Date: 
March 5, 2014
Last Updated:
March 6, 2014