Lung Disease

As we grow older, our bodies may struggle to keep up the pace they once held. Of the varying conditions developed by the senior population, lung disease affects nearly 1 in 7 middle-aged and older adults in the U.S. With this category of disease come many different specific ailments and disorders. Nearly one-third of seniors report moderate or severe respiratory symptoms and 17 percent of people 60 to 79 experience chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma.

As the third leading cause of death in the United States, it is important to learn the basics of what lung disease is and how you can treat its various forms.

Lung disease varies in the symptoms of the conditions themselves, as well as the causes and severity. The most common diseases and conditions for seniors are asthma , COPD which includes emphysema and bronchitis, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and lung cancer.

Some maladies are minor and can be managed, while others are much more debilitating and difficult to overcome. Learning briefly about each type of lung disease can help you stay informed for the sake finding ways to treat and live with a condition. Many of the symptoms of these diseases overlap, so always consult your doctor for a professional diagnosis.

The Most Common Lung Diseases Affecting Seniors Include:

Asthma - A chronic airway inflammation disorder, caused by a hyperactivity of non-specific stimuli leading to various airway obstructions. This condition is mostly treatable and can often be reversed, yet over time it becomes more difficult to treat.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) - Fixed airway obstructions that are usually and mainly caused by continuous infections or exacerbations. Many people with COPD have a persistent history of smoking, the most common cause of lung disease in the U.S.

Emphysema -  A result of irreparable damage to the delicate linings of the air sacs in the lungs. Most cases are caused by smoking, but other factors such as fumes or dust in a work environment increase the risk of developing emphysema.

Bronchitis - Usually caused by viral infections, causing a cough, mucus production, fatigue, and general bodily discomfort.

Pneumonia - Inflammation of the air sacs, causing them to fill with fluid or pus. Although the symptoms can appear very similar to bronchitis, various microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, or fungi can cause pneumonia.

Pulmonary Embolism - Occur when blood clots travel from other parts of the body to the lungs. Most cases of pulmonary embolism occur in conjunction with deep vein thrombosis. This can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.

Lung Cancer - Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, causing more deaths than colon, prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer combined. Quitting smoking now can greatly reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.

Symptoms of Lung Disease

Considering that there is a wide range of lung disease, many symptoms can be signs of a more serious, underlying condition. In most cases, the earlier these types of diseases are caught, the easier they are to treat. Contact your physician or respiratory specialist if you experience one or several of these symptoms:

  • Chronic cough
  • Sustained shortness of breath
  • Overactive mucus production
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chronic chest pain

To prepare for your visit to a specialist, it is useful to compile a list of all of your current medications and past health conditions to make their job easier. It is also very helpful to keep a log of when these symptoms occurred, what you were doing at the time, and how long each episode lasted.

What are the Causes of Lung Disease?

Again, there are many types of lung disease and naturally many causes associated with each. To start with the obvious, smoking greatly increases your chances of most forms of lung disease, along with a slew of other unpleasant health conditions. Quitting now can start to dramatically improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Environmental factors such as excessive dust or other airborne irritants can also lead to things like chronic allergies, asthma, COPD, and even Emphysema among others.

Other diseases may be the result of damage to the alveoli (air sacs) that comprise most of our lung tissue. Pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a pulmonary edema can all damage these tiny air sacs and hinder the lung’s ability to clear toxins and deny proper respiration.

Diagnoses of Lung Disease

In most cases, doctors will start by reviewing your medical history and providing you with a physical examination. The next steps may include chest x-rays or CT scans, followed by lung capacity tests. It is also likely that they will test your heart to see if the symptoms are interrelated to other cardiovascular issues.

You will be asked about your history of smoking or exposure to other harmful toxins, so be honest with your doctor in order to receive a proper evaluation.

Lung Disease Treatments

Depending on your diagnosis, your treatment options will vary based on the severity of your condition and the current methods available.

Medications: Using certain medications like bronchodilators and other forms of inhalers can help relax muscles around the airways to increase your ability to breathe. It is important to understand whether your current medication treatment plan can accommodate the use of inhalers, especially those containing steroids.

Pulmonary rehabilitation: The goal of this type of rehab is to teach patients ways of exercising the muscles associated with the respiratory process to manage stress and promote proper breathing techniques. Regular rehabilitation services can also help to stave off any further lung diseases or health risks.

Lifestyle changes: It is essential to your lung health that you quit smoking and stay away from cigarette smoke altogether. Additionally, if you are healthy enough to exercise regularly through activities like stair climbing, aerobic exercise, and other appropriate strength training exercises you’ll have a better chance at overcoming certain respiratory issues.

Oxygen Treatment: For conditions like severe COPD, emphysema, or cystic fibrosis, oxygen therapy in the form of breathing with the assistance of nasal prongs or a mask accompanied by a portable oxygen tank is an option for most chronic lung diseases. Oxygen therapy comes with a long list of considerations and applications, so check with your doctor to see if this is an appropriate treatment for you.

Surgery: There are several main reasons why someone might undergo surgery for lung disease. If a mass is found in the lungs, a biopsy can reveal whether it is benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Depending on the location of the mass, the effectiveness of a surgical procedure will vary. Other procedures can be used to correct scarring from conditions like pneumonia or to drain fluids which may have accumulated in the lungs.

Just remember, catching most lung diseases in their early stages dramatically increases the effectiveness of the treatments available. Regular checkups and exercise help you make the most of your lung health!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is lung disease hereditary?

Yes, there are some forms of lung disease that are hereditary. One of the most well researched diseases is known as Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. People with this condition usually develop symptoms of shortness of breath, reduced ability to exercise, and wheezing during ages 20 and 50. Other symptoms include unintentional weight gain, recurring infections, fatigue and rapid heartbeat upon standing. This disease usually affects 1 in 1,500 to 3,500 individuals of European descent.

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What medications are available to treat lung disease?

Good question! Mostly it depends on the type of lung disease - short-acting bronchodilators are commonly used to treat stable COPD. These can include:

• Anticholinergics

• Beta2-agonists

Long-acting bronchodilators are also used for seniors who have more persistent symptoms, medications that include anticholinergics such as aclidinium, tiotropium, and umeclidinium. Beta2-agonists may also be used in the form of formoterol or salmeterol. Other medications include: 

• Phosphodiesterase-4 (PDE4) Inhibitors

• Corticosteroids

• Methylxanthines

Always check with your doctor to make sure a medication regimen is working safely to help your condition!

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