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updated 6/6/2011 6:22:14 PM ET 2011-06-06T22:22:14

Smoking, even for a short time, increases women's risk of suffering a debilitating disorder called peripheral artery disease, or PAD, a new study says.

People with PAD have narrowed arteries in their extremities, often their legs, which reduce blood flow to the area and causes pain.

Among the 38,825 women studied, women who smoked were as much as 20 times more likely to develop PAD over a 13-year period than women who did not smoke.

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Quitting smoking reduced the risk of developing PAD. However, even those who had quit 20 years ago still had a higher risk of PAD than nonsmokers, the researchers said.

"Just as has been shown in the past for lung disease and heart attacks, our study now convincingly shows that smoking is a very strong risk factor for the development of peripheral artery disease," said study researcher Dr. Aruna D. Pradhan, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The findings underscore the importance of preventing people from taking up smoking and promoting efforts to quit, the researchers said.

Peripheral artery disease

The study in began in 1993 with women who were then ages 45 or older, none of whom had cardiovascular disease at the study's start.

About half the women had never smoked, 36 percent were former smokers, 8 percent smoked more than 15 cigarettes per day and 5 percent smoked less than 15 cigarettes per day.

By the end of the study, 178 women had developed PAD. PAD affects about 8 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association.

The more cigarettes a woman smoked, the higher her risk of PAD. Women who smoked at least one pack a day for 10 years had a particularly steep risk of developing the condition. But there was no threshold below which smokers were safe from developing PAD, the researchers said.

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The results held even after the researchers took into account factors that can affect developing PAD, including age and a history of high blood pressure and diabetes.

Smoking and artery health

Chemicals in cigarettes damage blood vessels, and increase the risk of arteriosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the arteries, according to the National Institutes of Health. This in turn increases the risk of PAD.

"What is surprising is that you see this effect even 20 years after quitting," Pradhan told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The researchers noted the study did not account for women who may have had PAD but did not show symptoms. In addition, the participants were mainly white women, so the findings may not apply to the population as a whole, they said.

The new study will be published tomorrow (June 7) in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Pass it on: Smoking raises a woman's risk of developing peripheral artery disease Those who quit still have an elevated risk of PAD 20 years later.

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Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

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