While the health benefits of quitting cigarettes for younger Australians are well established, less is known about what difference quitting makes for those over the age of 45.

One of the first published studies from UNSW’s new Centre for Big Data Research in Health (CBDRH) has found older Australians with certain chronic health conditions who kick the habit can dramatically improve their health and significantly reduce their chances of a hospital visit.

The UNSW study, the first of its kind in Australia to measure how smoking contributes to preventable hospital visits among a large population, was published today in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Large increases in health expenditure are expected over the next 40 years. “The majority of preventable hospitalisations for chronic conditions occur among people aged 65 years and older,” says  CBDRH director and study author Professor Louisa Jorm.

“If we can help older smokers with chronic conditions to quit, their likelihood of a very expensive hospital visit down the track is greatly reduced.”

Jorm’s team analysed hospital admissions data of 267,000 Australian men and women involved in The Sax Institute’s 45 and Up Study. The group included 7% current, 36% former and 57% non-smokers.

“We looked at the risk of hospitalisation for chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure, diabetes complications, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and angina,” Jorm says.

Current smokers increased their risk of hospitalisation for COPD by 700%, while their risk of hospitalisation for congestive heart failure, diabetes complications, and angina increased by up to 41%.

The study also found major health benefits for older smokers, with the risk of being hospitalised with COPD reduced within five years of quitting.

Preventable conditions account for around 10% of hospital stays and total hospital expenditure. In 2014, the Productivity Commission reported that 600,000 to 750,000 expensive hospital admissions a year could be avoided through effective community care.

An average hospital admission costs at least $5000, while a community intervention to prevent that admission would cost around $300.  

The Centre for Big Data Research in Health was created at UNSW last year with the aim of using big data to reduce the costs of healthcare and prevent disease. The Centre’s research spans a broad range of health issues where large-scale electronic data sets exist, including maternal and child health, chronic disease and multiple morbidity, Aboriginal health, substance use, drug safety and communicable diseases.