If you show smokers that their lungs are aging faster than the rest of their bodies, you may motivate them to kick the habit. Smokers in a recent British study were more than twice as likely to quit when given spirometry results shown graphically in terms of “lung age,” instead of as raw forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) data.

“Presentation of information in an understandable and visual way seems to encourage higher levels of successful smoking cessation than when patients are given feedback that is not easily understandable,” the research team concludes.

Researchers administered spirometry tests to 561 smokers, whose median age was 53. All of them were strongly advised to stop smoking and referred to cessation clinics. Half received their results in terms of “lung age,” that is the age of an average healthy person performing at a similar level. This so-called “intervention group” also received a graph illustrating how smoking was accelerating the normal reduction in lung function that comes with age. The control group received only their FEV1 scores.

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Twelve months later, 13.6% of the intervention group (38 out of 280 participants) had quit smoking, compared with 6.4% (18 out of 281) of the control subjects. Quitting was independently verified by carbon monoxide breath tests and a saliva test to measure a metabolite of nicotine (BMJ. 2008;336:598-600).

“Knowing one’s lung age helps a smoker quit, whatever the result,” the researchers write. “If lung age is normal, there is an incentive to stop before it becomes abnormal. If not, this is a clear message that accelerated deterioration would be slowed if the smoker exercised control and stopped.”