Quitting smoking can turn back time.

A year after kicking the habit, smokers’ arteries showed signs of reversing a problem that can set the stage for heart disease, according to the first big study to test this.

The improvement came even though smokers gained an average of four kilograms after they quit, researchers found.

Their levels of so-called good cholesterol improved, too.

“A lot of people are afraid to quit smoking because they’re afraid to gain weight,” said the study’s leader, James Stein, a University of Wisconsin-Madison cardiologist.

The new research shows these people gain a health benefit even though they pick up pounds that hopefully can be shed once they’ve gotten used to not smoking, he said.

Smoking is one of the top causes of heart disease, and about one third of smoking-related deaths in the US are due to heart disease. A heart attack often motivates long-time smokers to give it up.

Quitting is known to lower the risk of developing or dying of lung cancer. This is the first major clinical trial to show it quickly improves artery health. Results were published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and presented at the group’s annual conference yesterday.

In the study, 1,500 smokers were given one of five methods to help them quit -- nicotine patches; nicotine lozenges; the drug bupropion, sold as Wellbutrin and Zyban; or a combination of patches and lozenges or the drug and lozenges. A sixth group received a dummy treatment.

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