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BACKGROUND: Heart rate variability (HRV) reflects the autonomous nervous system modulation on heart rate and is associated with several pathologies, including cardiac mortality. While mechanistic studies show that smoking is associated with lower HRV, population-based studies present conflicting results. METHODS: We assessed the mutual effects of active smoking status, cumulative smoking history, and current smoking intensity, on HRV among 4751 adults from the Cooperative Health Research In South Tyrol (CHRIS) study. The HRV metrics standard deviation of normal-to-normal (NN) inter-beat intervals (SDNN), square root of the mean squared differences of consecutive NN intervals (RMSSD), total power (TP), low (LF) and high frequency (HF) power, and their ratio (LF/HF), were derived from 20-minute electrocardiograms. Smoking status, pack-years (PY), and tobacco grams/day from standardized questionnaires were the main exposures. We fitted linear mixed models to account for relatedness, non-linearity, and moderating effects, and including fractional polynomials. RESULTS: Past smokers had higher HRV levels than never smokers, independently of PY. The association of HRV with current smoking became apparent when accounting for the interaction between smoking status and PY. In current smokers, but not in past smokers, we observed HRV reductions between 2.0% (SDNN) and 4.9% (TP) every 5 PY increase. Furthermore, current smokers were characterized by dose-response reductions of 9.8% (SDNN), 8.9% (RMSSD), 20.1% (TP), 17.7% (LF), and 19.1% (HF), respectively, every 10 grams/day of smoked tobacco, independently of common cardiometabolic conditions and HRV-modifying drugs. The LF/HF ratio was not associated with smoking status, history, or intensity. CONCLUSIONS: Smoking cessation was associated with higher HRV levels. In current smokers, heavier smoking intensity appears gradually detrimental on HRV, corroborating previous evidence. By affecting both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system indexes, but not the LF/HF balance, smoking intensity seems to exert a systemic dysautonomic effect.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

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