The Quiet Epidemic: A Killer Lung Disease Strikes Nearly 1 in 4 Adults
The name COPD may not be familiar to you, but it's likely the symptoms are. Someone you know is beginning to show signs that his or her lungs aren't working right -- except the symptoms can be so subtle you may not realize that's what's going on. Or -- even scarier -- it might be you, and you may have no symptoms at all, and yet your lungs have already suffered irreparable damage. Known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for the progressive nature of the damage and the fact that it prevents air from reaching all the airways in the lungs, COPD is one of the most under-recognized diseases around.
Why are doctors and researchers suddenly so concerned that people don't know about COPD? Because the latest numbers are terrifying. According to a study in the September 10, 2011, issue of The Lancet, COPD will strike one in four adults over the age of 35, a much higher percentage than previously reported. According to Andrea Gershon, the researcher who led the study, the average woman in her mid-30s is more than three times as likely to develop COPD, a progressive and potentially fatal lung disease, as breast cancer. And a man in his 30s is more than three times as likely to develop COPD as prostate cancer. Here's what we all need to know about COPD to protect ourselves.
Why COPD can be considered an epidemic
COPD may not spread from person to person as an infectious disease, but its numbers are rising, and the number of people dying from it is higher every year. Another problem is that COPD is underreported, and the disease often goes unrecognized until people are very ill. Consider these scary facts:
COPD is now the third-leading cause of death in America, claiming the lives of 124,000 Americans a year, according to the American Lung Association.
Mortality from COPD has increased 22 percent in the last decade.
According to the latest estimates, there may be as many as 16 million people in the United States currently diagnosed with COPD.
An additional 14 million or more people in the U.S. may have COPD but haven't been diagnosed because they have few symptoms and haven't sought health care yet. (Many smokers delay seeking treatment for "smoker's cough" because they dread receiving bad news.)
Who gets COPD
Best known as a smoker's disease, COPD does strike smokers and people who smoked when they were younger at much higher rates than nonsmokers. But lung damage from smoking only accounts for a portion of COPD cases, and experts are still trying to sort it all out. For example, women die from COPD in higher numbers than men, yet fewer women smoke. Other factors associated with COPD include exposure to workplace chemicals, secondhand smoke, asthma, a history of childhood respiratory disease, and other lung diseases that cause lung damage. The latest study followed, for 14 years, 13 million adults in the Canadian health registry who were in their mid-30s and older. Here's what it tells us about who gets COPD:
Men: 30 percent of all men will get COPD in their lifetime, and 60,000 men will die from COPD, according to the Canadian study.
Women: 25 percent of all women will get COPD in their lifetime, and 64,000 women a year will die from COPD. Note that although the percentage of women with COPD is lower, more women die of the disease.
People in rural areas: 32 percent of people who live in rural areas get COPD.
People in urban areas: While at lower risk than those in rural areas, 26.7 percent of urban dwellers nevertheless get COPD.