The link between smoking and cancer is well known, but there’s another major killer associated with smoking that often goes unnoticed – heart disease.

“Smoking not only causes cancer. Smoking is also a significant contributor to heart disease, the top cause of death for men and women in the U.S.,” said Paul Fitzpatrick, manager of the Defense Health Agency’s “Quit Tobacco” program.

During National Heart Month, February, DHA wants to spread awareness about how smoking and tobacco use contributes to heart disease. DHA is also promoting heart-healthy lifestyles and tobacco cessation through TRICARE, the health plan for Service members and their Families, and through its Quit Tobacco website.

Approximately 600,000 people die of heart disease each year in the U.S. – about one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of these, 107,000 men and women die of heart disease related to smoking and smokeless tobacco products, deaths that are largely preventable. On average, smokers die 13-14 years earlier than non-smokers.

Here’s how smoking causes heart disease, according to the American Heart Association:

  • Reduces the amount of oxygen your heart gets.
  • Raises your blood pressure.
  • Speeds up your heart rate.
  • Makes clots more likely, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Decreases exercise tolerance.
  • Causes inflammation of blood vessels including those in your heart.

Heart disease has become the number one cause of smoking-related deaths in women. “This finding is important to men, too, because most of us have women in our lives as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters. Everyone wants their loved ones to live longer,” Fitzpatrick said.

Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives are even more vulnerable. Smoking greatly increases their risk of coronary artery disease and stroke, compared to non-smoking women who use oral contraceptives, according to the AHA.

Quitting smoking before age 40 reduces the risk of dying from smoking-related disease by about 90 percent, according to CDC research. However, it’s never too late to quit. If you become one of the millions of people who quit tobacco successfully each year, you can feel benefits almost immediately and will be on your way to a longer, healthier life.