The Wisconsin Smokers’ Health Study 2 (WSHS 2) was designed to help patients quit smoking and, from it, UW-CTRI researchers have gathered useful information. The five-year, $10 million study is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

One goal was to learn if some of the artery damage caused by smoking could be undone. To answer that, researchers at the UW-Madison Cardiology Lab scanned the pulse in the wrists of all WSHS 2 participants.

That test was done on all participants. Research like this on such a large group of smokers have never been done before, and the findings were very exciting.

Researchers knew that, by quitting, smokers reduced the likelihood of having heart problems. But they didn’t know why that was the case. Now, they have discovered that artery stiffness was one of the keys.

“Compared to people who continued smoking, the arteries of people who quit as part of the Wisconsin Smokers’ Health Study were much less stiff,” said Dr. James Stein, one of the principal investigators of this study, “which lowered their risk of heart attacks and strokes.”

Arteries deliver blood and oxygen to the brain, kidneys and heart. They tend to stiffen with age, losing their flexibility and becoming more like rigid pipes.

Healthy arteries deliver the blood in a constant flow, but stiff arteries deliver it unevenly and at a higher pressure. This forces the heart to work a lot harder to pump blood with every beat and damages the arteries. Risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking cause arteries to stiffen.

But is that damage permanent?

WSHS 2 findings suggest it is not permanent.

More research needs to be done before we can know for sure, but this new study gives us hope that some of the damage caused by smoking can be undone.

How Many People Quit Smoking?

Of the 1086 smokers who participated in the treatment trials of WSHS 2, about 25% had quit smoking after 6 months. A year after their quit day, about 20% of smokers were not smoking. This is four times better than the 5% success rate of quitting without using any medications.


Staff from the UW-Madison Cardiology Lab (from left): Assistant Professor Dr. Carol Mitchell, Exercise Physiologist Laura Zeller, Senior Sonographer and Study Coordinator JoAnne Weber, Exercise Physiologist Jean Einerson, UW Health Preventive Cardiology Director Dr. James Stein, Associate Lab Manager Kristen Hansen, Senior Research Scientist and Manager Dr. Claudia Korcarz.

Helping Your Heart

Researchers also collected blood and urine samples and examined them for signs of inflammation, which is the body’s way of protecting itself. Inflammation affects not only how quickly injuries heal. It also affects how healthy one’s heart and arteries are.

The more inflammation a patient has, the harder it is on that patient’s heart. We found that certain inflammation markers, such as the number of white blood cells, worsened the more people smoked. When people quit smoking, the number of white blood cells was much lower. This seemed to be one more way quitting can improve cardiovascular health.

Combination Meds Helped

WSHS 2 patients in the treatment trial answered automated calls on or around their quit day. UW-CTRI researchers found those who used either 1) Chantix or 2) nicotine patches + lozenges felt better after quitting than those who used only patches. They weren’t as overwhelmed by cravings.

Now researchers and clinicians can tell smokers and healthcare providers that these medications help reduce smokers’ withdrawal when they try to quit.