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LOSS OF STRENGTH, AGILITY LINKED TO SMOKING

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Elderly women who smoke are weaker and less agile than their nonsmoking contemporaries, researchers say.

They may also feel older."For an older woman, smoking may have the same effect as adding five years to a person's age," said Dr. Heidi D. Nelson, lead author of a study that appears in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The study adds to the long list of reasons why people should not be smoking," Nelson said.

The study's results also suggest that older smokers may increase their risks of injuries from falls and require more frequent treatment for physical injuries than nonsmokers, Nelson said.

The study measured how 9,704 white women over the age of 65 performed such basic physical tasks as gripping an object, walking, rising from a chair and climbing stairs.

Smokers performed more poorly than nonsmokers in 11 of 12 categories tested, said Nelson, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University's School of Medicine.

In each case, test results for the smokers were similar to what would have been expected for women years older.

The researchers said smoking causes vascular problems that may explain the poorer functions.

The smokers in the group averaged 16 cigarettes a day.

"Younger women are smoking sooner and more often than this group. What's ahead might be more dramatic," she warned.

Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society, who did not take part in the research, said smoking "accelerates aging and loss of function in many ways."

He said the study suggests that more research needs to be done on smoking's effect on neuromuscular function.

In the same study, researchers measured how moderate drinkers performed physical tasks as compared to nondrinkers.

The moderate drinkers - those who averaged fewer than 14 drinks per week - did better on 11 of 12 tasks than their nondrinking counterparts.

But despite those findings, Nelson said she wouldn't advise an older friend to start drinking.

She said the results could stem from the fact that women who are healthier in the first place tend to have a more social and active lifestyle that includes an occasional alcoholic beverage.

Another reason could be that women who have medical problems may then stop drinking.