Why most smokers develop lung problems—and a lucky few don’t

Still going strong.
Still going strong.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Many smokers will go on to develop some sort of lung problem, but a lucky few always seem to escape this fate.

Everyone’s heard of one or two extraordinarily long-lived smokers: Lorna Gobey, a centenarian from Gloucestershire, UK, claims to have smoked at least half a million cigarettes in her lifetime. According to the Telegraph, Gobey celebrated her 100th birthday with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette.

How do these people do it?  A new study suggests the answer is in their genes.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham and University of Leicester investigated how long-term smokers survive the habit into their old age. After looking at data from more than 50,000 people, they found genetic differences between smokers with healthy lungs and nonsmokers with lung problems.

The study, published Sept. 28 in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal, focused specifically on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is a collection of lung disorders including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Researchers discovered a section of DNA that reduces the risk of COPD. Smokers with certain DNA profiles who had favorable mutations didn’t develop COPD. Others who weren’t smokers, but had a DNA profile with a higher risk of COPD, went on to develop the disease. Researchers also found some genetic differences in how smokers are affected by tobacco addiction.

The results of the study is similar to previous research, which suggested that smokers who live longer-than-average lives may have a genetic disposition to survive. The research doesn’t mean that people should take the risk; not smoking remains the best option to keep lungs healthy. But researchers note in the study that the findings provide “potential targets for therapeutic intervention,” which could one day lead to breakthroughs in treatment and more targeted methods to help smokers quit.