How COPD Affects Seniors

by Bethany
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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.

Why Getting a Flu Shot is So Important For Seniors

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.

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What Is COPD?

The lungs have small sacs called alveoli which fill like balloons when you breathe. The oxygen in the alveoli makes its way into the bloodstream to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your organs. With chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the lungs don’t work properly due to damage from smoking or pollutants. This makes the alveoli walls break down while the airways swell and become full of mucus. This disease makes it difficult to get enough oxygen when you breathe and push out carbon dioxide. As a progressive disease, the condition will worsen over time as the lungs become inflamed and the tissue becomes damaged. In general, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a general term that describes progressive lung disease such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

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Common Signs of COPD

Emphysema can trigger a number of symptoms that relate to breathing, stamina, and the heart. The characteristic signs of this disease include difficulty breathing, wheezing, mucus, and a cough. In most cases, these signs are not obvious until there has been significant lung damage. Signs like shortness of breath, especially during exercise and excess mucus in the lungs tend to get worse over time. Difficulty breathing usually gets worse when you lie down. Signs that may not be obvious can include swollen ankles, coughing for no apparent reason, difficulty sleeping, and waking up with a headache.

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What To Do If You Have COPD

If you suspect you have emphysema or chronic bronchitis, it’s important to take your symptoms seriously and seek treatment. The first course of action is measuring your lung function with a breathing test. Your doctor will make recommendations to help you live better with the condition and maintain your lung capacity. If you smoke, it’s important to stop immediately. Exercise is still important, but low-impact exercise that does not threaten breathing is best. Taking medication as prescribed can also improve breathing and reduce your chances of getting sick. You can expect to make lifestyle changes to accommodate your condition.

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Living With COPD

Emphysema is a treatable condition. When it’s well managed, most people can enjoy a good quality of life with control of most symptoms. Still, living with lung disease can be difficult. It’s important to avoid cigarette smoke and any other lung irritants, including dust in your home. An exercise program can help you breathe easier and feel better, even if it’s just walking outdoors. You will need to take medication daily to support your lung function. Because progressive lung disease makes it easier for you to get seriously ill, you should wash your hands often and avoid people who have a flu or cold.

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What Causes COPD?

COPD is usually the result of long-term damage from irritants of the airways and lungs. The most common irritant that leads to COPD is cigarette smoke. Even people who do not smoke can get COPD from long-term secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke. Smoking accounts for most cases of COPD, but there are other ways to get this form of lung disease. COPD can also be the result of exposure to other irritants like chemical fumes or pollutants, which usually happens at work. COPD can be a risk of certain industries. Some people are at a higher risk of COPD than others due to genetic predisposition or preterm birth, which can cause lung damage.

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COPD Symptoms

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease has symptoms that come on slowly and progressively worsen. Many people have exacerbations or episodes in which symptoms get worse for several days. You will likely experience shortness of breath, especially when you are physically active or lie down. This may come with wheezing, tightness of the chest, and a chronic cough with mucus. You may wake up with headaches and need to clear your throat as soon as you wake up. Chronic fatigue is common as well as swelling of the legs and ankles. Many people with lung disease experience frequent respiratory infections and weight loss.