CMU researcher discovers link between aging and smoking

New studies identify common mechanisms, link to e-cigarettes

For the first time, research has pinpointed the mechanisms within our cells which link smoking and aging. The finding, made by Central Michigan University’s Neeraj Vij, will allow doctors to screen patients for the predictive marker, which may help them to create an intervention strategy to help control and prevent advanced lung diseases.

“We can tell people to stop smoking but we can’t tell them to stop aging, that’s a process we just have no control over,” said Vij, associate professor of molecular and cell biology in CMU’s College of Medicine. “But, in this study, we linked the pathophysiology by which both of these processes occur.”

Smoking is the number one cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema, and aging is the second leading cause. Vij found the central mechanism, which is altered by these two causes, is actually one in the same: the central mechanism which leads to COPD and emphysema.

COPD is one of the leading causes of death in the world according to the World Health Organization. The study compared lung tissue samples in various stages of COPD and emphysema, some with as little as 25 percent lung function.

Vij initiated the research while at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He and his team members there recently published the study in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology. The team’s discovery can be used to identify populations susceptible to lung disease, which Vij hopes will allow doctors to intervene sooner.

“Through our work with different tobacco products – e-cigarettes, waterpipe, traditional cigarettes – we have developed specific methods to predict lung disease,” he said. “It allows us to separate the population most susceptible, so we can kick in prevention early or intervention can be in place before the disease advances.”

Outside the cigarette

In a related study, published in Free Radical Biological Medicine, Vij further tied cigarette smoke exposure to waterpipe – or hookah – smoking and e-cigarette use. Though vaping shops in college towns across the country aggressively market their products without the same regulations as cigarettes, Vij’s work indicates they can be just as unhealthy. The same predictive marker from his aging study applies to these nontraditional smoking types.

“There is a common untruth out there that waterpipe smoking or vaping is somehow ‘safer’ than smoking,” Vij said. “The ingredients may be different but all methods of smoking raise concerns, and there is no reason to believe any of them are ‘safe’.”

According to Vij, because both waterpipes and e-cigarettes still utilize the most dangerous ingredient within the traditional cigarette – nicotine – they can be dangerous and addictive. The same mechanisms within lung cells are at work. Many companies market e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking traditional cigarettes, though many of the same risks remain, Vij said.

“There are different types of chemicals in the smoke and vapor byproducts, some of which are known carcinogens,” he said.

In previous studies, Vij’s lab cited e-cigarette vapor could lead to emphysema. This study helps him to build a case for more research into the risks of waterpipe and e-cigarette smoking.

“Sufficient studies are needed to help regulate e-cigarettes,” he said. “Part of the problem is it can take 10 to 20 years for a young person to develop a disease, and these are fairly new products which have not been studied extensively.”

Vij’s future work will continue to gather evidence on the effects of waterpipe and e-cigarette smoking as these methods grow in popularity among younger age groups. He also works with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to help inform and raise awareness about the lack of regulations around these non-traditional smoking methods.

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