How COPD Affects Seniors

Lung disease comes in many forms, including asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. One of the most serious forms of lung disease is COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the second-most common disease of the lungs after asthma. There are nearly 12 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with this condition, also called emphysema and chronic bronchitis, but another 12 million are believed to suffer from the disease without knowing it.

This chronic disease worsens over time. While not all COPD patients are smokers, the majority of people who have this disease were smokers. Because this disease results from long-term exposure to lung irritants like smoke, the risk of COPD increases with age. Less than 4% of people under 45 have been diagnosed with COPD. Most cases of COPD are diagnosed in seniors. While common signs of COPD may be present in the 50s, the disease gets worse and may cause disability by the 60s.

Many seniors living with COPD face severe and even life-threatening symptoms as well as difficult treatment. Because the disease comes on slowly, early symptoms can be easy to blame on lifestyle choices or simply getting older, but prompt treatment and management is important to reduce the effects of lung disease.

COPD and Seniors

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease primarily affects seniors in the U.S. This disease is often misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed. About 1 in 7 older adults has some type of lung disease, according to the American Lung Association. There are many factors that increase the risk of COPD for seniors, including smoking, environmental exposure to irritants like fumes and dust, and genetic factors. Most cases of lung disease are diagnosed in people over 40 who are current or former smokers.

Because the lung damage occurs over time with symptoms that come on slowly, many older adults assume their breathing problems come from age or being out of shape. Most seniors are not diagnosed until they have lost at least 50% of their lung function. With medication and lifestyle management, many seniors will find that the disease is partially reversible and symptoms can be improved dramatically.

Self-care is the most important thing seniors can do after a COPD diagnosis. This includes quitting smoking, exercising regularly, getting flu vaccines, avoiding crows in the winter, and eating well. Unfortunately, many seniors with lung disease also have other health conditions that can increase the risk of complications and hospitalization.