What Seniors Should Know About Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

50% of People with COPD Don't Know They Have It

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is the third leading cause of death for seniors. This well-known acronym is an umbrella term for a group of progressive respiratory conditions that negatively affect the structure and function of your lungs, making it difficult to breathe. COPD is also called chronic obstructive airway disease or chronic obstructive lung disease and includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

If you suspect you're developing COPD, discuss it with your healthcare professional and ask if a simple and non-intrusive breathing test called spirometry is right for you. Early detection and treatment can slow the progression of this disease, but don't offer a cure.

How COPD Affects the Lungs

When you have COPD, two lung abnormalities develop. First, the airway walls thicken and lose their natural elasticity. As a result, passageways are narrowed or closed completely and can easily become plugged with mucus. Secondly, when you breathe in, air will still fill your lungs, but it is often unable to escape fully during exhalation.

These abnormalities create two serious problems. Blood flow and air flow to your lungs becomes uneven or mismatched. Sometimes there is adequate blood flow but little air, while other times there is a good supply of fresh air but not enough blood flow. When either occurs, fresh air cannot reach areas where there is good blood flow and oxygen cannot enter the bloodstream in normal quantities.

Narrow or obstructed airways also make breathing more difficult. This makes your respiratory muscles tired and unable to get enough oxygen to the lungs. If you can't breathe properly, carbon dioxide builds up in the blood. When carbon dioxide accumulation becomes a severe problem, your physician may recommend a mechanical breathing machine called a respirator or ventilator.

Will I Get COPD?

The majority of people with COPD smoke cigarettes or used to smoke cigarettes, and smokers are more likely to get COPD if a family member had it.

Your risk also increases if you experienced long-term exposure to lung irritants, including:

Common Symptoms of COPD

These progressive respiratory diseases develop slowly over time and it may take years before you notice any signs. In fact, 50-percent of people who have COPD don't know they do.

Symptoms to look for include:

Other COPD Complications

The systemic effects of this chronic condition go beyond your respiratory system to affect other parts of your body and increase the likeliness you will develop other health problems including:

Treatment Options

Early detection is key to having good health outcomes because there is no cure for COPD.

Once diagnosed, your health care provider will recommend steps you can take to slow down the disease's progress and get your symptoms under control, which will likely include a combination of lifestyle changes and medical treatment.

Lifestyle changes may include:

  • quitting smoking if you haven't already
  • avoiding exposure to lung irritants
  • creating an eating plan, under the guidance of your healthcare provider, to prevent weight loss
  • discovering safe physical activities so you can prevent losing muscle mass and stay physically active

When lifestyle changes aren't enough, your health care provider will suggest medical treatment, including:


    Agusti, Alvar. Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society: Systemic Effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (2005).

    National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: How Is COPD Treated? (2014).

    University of Rochester Medical Center: How COPD Affects the Lungs

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