Drinking alcohol and smoking can cause the arteries to stiffen by just 17 years of age according to new UK research, which could put teenagers at a higher risk of heart attack and stroke later in life.
Carried out by researchers at University College London (UCL), the study looked at data from 1,266 adolescents taken over a five-year period.
The participants were asked to report on their smoking and drinking habits at ages 13, 15 and 17 as well as the number of cigarettes they had ever smoked.
They were then split into groups based on the level of their exposure from 'low' (0-20 cigarettes) to 'moderate' (20-99 cigarettes) to 'high' (more than 100 cigarettes).
The teens' exposure to parents smoking was also assessed by questionnaires, and aortic stiffening was measured.
The results showed that the teens in the 'high' intensity smoking group had a 3.7 percent increase in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those in the 'low' smoking intensity group.
After reporting on their drinking habits, the team also found that teenagers who tended to 'binge drink' -- defined as having more than ten drinks in a typical drinking day with the aim of becoming drunk -- showed a 4.7 percent increase in the stiffening of their arteries compared to 'light' intensity drinkers, defined as less than two drinks on a typical drinking day.
A combination of high alcohol intake and smoking was linked to even greater arterial damage compared to drinking and smoking separately, with participants who were in both the 'high smoking and 'high' drinking intensity group showing an increase of 10.8 percent in the stiffening of their arteries compared to those who had never smoked and the low alcohol consumers.
Arterial stiffness indicates damage to the blood vessels, which can predict heart and blood vessel problems in later life, such as heart attacks and stroke.
"Although studies have shown teenagers are smoking less in recent years, our findings indicated approximately one in five teenagers were smoking by the age of 17. In families where parents were smokers, teenagers were more likely to smoke," commented study author Dr. Marietta Charakida.
"Drinking and smoking in adolescence, even at lower levels compared to those reported in adult studies, is associated with arterial stiffening and atherosclerosis progression," added senior author, Professor John Deanfield.
"However, we also found that if teenagers stopped smoking and drinking during adolescence, their arteries returned to normal suggesting that there are opportunities to preserve arterial health from a young age."
The findings were published in the European Heart Journal.