How Aging Affects Your Lungs and Breathing
With October being National Lung Health Month, it’s good to discuss the importance of healthy lungs and optimal breathing for senior patients. One of the most common lung issues for elderly patients is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which is a progressive disease that gets worse as we age. That means being familiar with the warning signs for COPD, as well as lung cancer, asthma, and emphysema, are important.
The lungs, which in an adult can hold about six liters of air, is the organ through which the body pulls oxygen from the air, exchanging it with the carbon dioxide you breathe out. When we take a breath, air travels through the bronchial tubes to small round sacs called, “alveoli.” Oxygen passes through the alveoli walls into the bloodstream while carbon passes from the blood to the lungs to be exhaled as carbon dioxide.
After about the age of 35, lung function starts to decline, making breathing a little more difficult. This happens because the lung tissue can start to lose its elasticity, shrinking the airways. The diaphragm, which is the muscle that forces air in and out of the lungs while breathing, also starts to weaken with age. Adding lung-related health issues to the natural aging process can make breathing even more difficult.
COPD in older patients
A progressive lung disease, COPD is a disease where the elasticity of the lung tissue is lost over time and capillaries in the lungs become inflamed. This causes the body to overproduce mucus which blocks the airways. COPD gets progressively worse with time and while there are treatments, there is no cure and no way to reverse the damage.
There are two main forms of COPD:
- Emphysema. When smoking damages or destroys lung tissue, especially the alveoli, emphysema is typically the result. As it progresses, larger alveoli form to compensate for the number of sacs being reduced, which diminishes the efficiency of the exchange of oxygen and carbon.
- Chronic bronchitis. This occurs when the linings in the airways become chronically inflamed, causing them to thicken with mucus. As breathing becomes obstructed, patients with chronic bronchitis often suffer from long-term mucus-filled coughing fits.
Warning signs to look for
As with many health issues, catching lung problems early means you’ll have a better chance of minimizing symptoms, both long-term and near-term. Call a physician if you experience any of these symptoms:
Chronic chest pain
Chest pain can be an indicator of heart problems, as well as lung and breathing issues. Don’t take it lightly. Call your physician.
Coughing up blood
There is a wide range of possible causes if you are coughing up blood, and none of them should be ignored. Let your doctor know and schedule a visit as soon as possible.
If you’ve been coughing for a month or longer, that’s a chronic cough and it should be checked out by your doctor. It means there is something not functioning properly in your respiratory system.
Persistent wheezing tells you that something is blocking the airways in your lungs or causing them to be too narrow.
Shortness of breath
Any time you’re having problems breathing, it’s a cause for concern. Typically, it means your body is not getting enough oxygen and it should be checked out by a doctor.
Mucus is produced in the air passages when they are infected or irritants are present. Persistent mucus production lasting longer than a month could be an early indicator of lung disease.
Can lung disease be prevented?
Clearly, the best way to minimize the likelihood that you’ll get some form of lung disease is to avoid smoking. Healthier lifestyle choices – such as getting moderate exercise and eating a healthy diet – will also help.
Additionally, avoiding unnatural irritants in the air can have great benefits. For example, try not to use cleaning products and laundry detergents with added fragrance, and add some indoor plants to help purify the air. And test your home for radon or install a radon detector. After all, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, right behind cigarettes.