It’s easy to take our lungs for granted. For most people, you breathe in and out all day long, even while you’re sleeping, and they do their job without a break every single day. Until one day, you notice that you’re having a hard time taking a deep breath, or you find it difficult to walk a short distance without getting winded. Or, maybe you realize that you’re always fatigued. These are just a few of the symptoms that may indicate that your lungs are not functioning properly and that you should see your physician.
According to the American Lung Association, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 11 million fatalities in 2015. COPD is a term that describes several lung problems, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and severe chronic asthma.
The lungs have two primary functions. The first is to extract oxygen from the air we breathe and deliver it to the bloodstream so it can be circulated throughout the body. The other is to remove the waste created from the use of oxygen in the form of carbon dioxide, which is then exhaled.
As you breathe in, air fills millions of tiny air sacs and, as blood circulates around them through tiny blood vessels, oxygen crosses into the blood. At the same time, carbon dioxide crosses from the bloodstream into the lungs and is exhaled.
As your lungs age, the tissue loses some of its strength and becomes less flexible, which makes breathing difficult. Plus, your diaphragm, like most muscles in your body, gets weaker with age, while the bones in your rib cage may get smaller or change shape, leaving less room for the lungs to expand. And all these changes occur as your immune system is getting weaker, reducing your body’s ability to fight infection.
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to protect your lungs.
See your physician regularly.
Lung problems can often go undetected until they become a health crisis. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor regularly, and to be very open with him or her about potential symptoms, like a nagging cough, shortness of breath, or discomfort when breathing. Also, your doctor will be able to spot any signs of infection early and provide treatment quickly.
Smokers are 12 to 13 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smokers. Clearly, quitting is no easy task, but even among the elderly, it’s never too late to improve your health by giving up cigarettes. Within 12 hours of your last cigarette, the level of carbon monoxide in your blood returns to normal, and within just a few months, lung function begins to improve. Within a year, the risk of coronary heart disease is half of what it was when you were smoking.
Get a little exercise.
It’s okay to start small if it’s been a while since you worked out. Just take a walk around the block or go on a leisurely bike ride. Eventually, you just need to get to where your routine makes you breathe heavily. It works the lungs, as well as the muscles that control breathing, making them stronger and healthier.
It’s also a good idea to avoid pollution and dust, if possible. Stay away from second-hand smoke and don’t go outside during peak pollution times. And keep your home well-ventilated by opening windows when the weather is nice and circulate the air with fans.
Your lungs provide the only means of getting oxygen into your bloodstream and out to every cell in your body. When you’re getting enough oxygen, you simply feel better and healthier. So take care of your lungs and feel the benefits every day!