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For years I've been going on long morning walks with my super smart and stylish friend Susan. But lately whenever we climb a hill, her breath becomes labored and we need to slow down; sometimes we stop in our tracks until she regains her energy. “This is what I get for smoking two packs a day,” she laments.
Susan quit cigarettes more than 30 years ago. But because of her former habit, at 67 she's now dealing with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an escalating lung illness that over time makes it harder and harder to breathe.
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Chronic respiratory diseases are the third leading cause of death in people 65 and older. They take more lives than stroke, diabetes or even Alzheimer's. And COPD significantly increases one's vulnerability to the new coronavirus. COVID-19 affects the part of the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged. Older Americans in general need to pay close attention to the evolving advice on the coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); if you're a former smoker, or have symptoms of COPD, take these warnings extra seriously.
Vaping isn't the answer
If you smoke, you might think of vaping as an alternative. “Vaping, when compared to smoking cigarettes, is probably safer,” Seides says. “But vaping is not as safe as inhaling nothing but clean air."
The first long-term study on the effects of vaping supports Seides’ view, linking e-cigarettes to an increased risk of chronic lung disease. When the research started in 2013, none of the more than 32,000 subjects showed any signs of lung disease. But by 2016, those who vaped had a 30 percent greater risk of developing chronic lung disease than those who didn't.
What exactly is COPD?
"COPD is a blanket term for respiratory diseases characterized by an inability to breathe out fully,” explains Benjamin J. Seides, M.D., director of interventional pulmonology at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. COPD takes two main forms:
Emphysema, a condition in which the air sacs (alveoli) of your lungs are damaged and eventually destroyed, causing breathlessness.
Chronic bronchitis, in which your bronchial tubes become inflamed and produce lots of mucus, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing.
What does COPD look like?
Symptoms often don't appear until the disease progresses, but they can include:
- Lack of energy and/or shortness of breath, especially during physical exercise
- Wheezing, chronic cough and chest tightness
- Frequent respiratory infections
- Blue lips or fingernails
- Coughing up a lot of mucus from the lungs, especially upon waking
- Swelling in your feet, ankles or legs
If you have asthma, you may experience similar symptoms, including wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. But with asthma, the damage to your lungs can be reversed. Not so with COPD.
How did this happen to me?
When you start smoking, you accelerate your lungs’ aging process by a significant factor. “Once you quit smoking, your lungs return to their normal aging rate,” Seides says. “But you can't go backward. The damage done during your smoking phase can't be undone.” It's no coincidence then that 75 percent of folks diagnosed with COPD either smoke or used to smoke—not only cigarettes, but also cigars and pipes. There are other risk factors as well:
The damage to your lungs of frequently being around other smokers can approach that of actually being a smoker.
Exposure to chemical fumes
These may come from certain cleaning and beauty products, new carpeting, scented candles, room deodorizers and pesticides.