Amid various health concerns that typically affect seniors, such as heart disease, dementia and diabetes, our lungs are often overlooked – despite the fact that healthy lungs are essential to our survival. From bronchitis to lung cancer, there are numerous diseases that can impact our lungs, and unfortunately, the risk of experiencing these lung problems increases with age.
It's not all bad news, however. By being proactive and by making simple lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk of lung disease and maintain healthy lungs as you age.
Common Lung Problems
Many of us tend to take our lungs for granted, not giving them a second thought until we have trouble breathing or develop a chronic cough. Lung diseases, however, are actually some of the most common medical conditions. According to a recent report by WebMD, one in seven older adults suffer from lung disorders, making them the third leading cause of death.
Only your doctor can diagnose a lung infection, but knowing the most common lung problems will help you be more aware should you experience any changes in your health:
Having asthma means that the lungs’ airways are constantly inflamed, resulting in shortness of breath and wheezing. Other common symptoms include coughing and tightness, pressure or pain in the chest. These symptoms may vary, however, since each asthma attack can affect your lungs differently.
2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD is one of the most common lung problems for older adults. A lung condition that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to exhale normally, the two main forms of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Both of these side effects of COPD involve coughing up mucus, shortness of breath, chest tightness and a persistent cough as symptoms.
While asthma and COPD are lung problems that affect the airways, a pneumonia infects the lungs’ air sacs, which make up most of the lung tissue. Confusion and delirium are the most common symptoms in older adults, but you may also experience a fever and coughing up mucus. You’re more likely to be diagnosed with pneumonia after being sick with a cold or flu, so be sure to get vaccinated before the flu season begins.
4. Lung Cancer
Lung cancer risk factors include smoking, family history and exposure to asbestos fibers, radon gas or air pollution, so if you develop a cough that won’t go away, or experience chest pain and you know that you have been exposed to those risk factors, see a doctor immediately. Unfortunately, by the time the symptoms like chronic coughing and wheezing become visible, the cancer is already in the advanced stages, so treatment typically involves surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
Promoting Healthy Lungs
Just like any other organ in our bodies, our lungs have a natural defense system to fight dirt and germs. While this defense system can be effective in warding off infections and diseases, we should still be doing everything we can to benefit our lungs.
To reduce your risk of experiencing lung problems, the American Lung Association outlines the following preventative steps you can take:
As we mentioned above, smoking is one of the leading COPD and lung cancer risk factors, with 90 percent of lung cancer diagnoses resulting from tobacco use according to WebMd. With each cigarette that you smoke, lung tissue is destroyed and the lung’s air passages narrow, making breathing extremely difficult and causing lasting damages to your lungs.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 8.5 percent of older adults currently smoke, smoking for any amount of time automatically increases your risk of lung disease. But the good news is that it’s never too late to quit smoking and benefit your health. Although doing so is difficult, there are resources available to support you through this process.
If you’ve never smoked before, now is certainly not the time to start, and your lungs will be far better off for it.
Avoid Exposure to Pollutants.
Exposure to pollutants, including secondhand smoke, radon and even hidden chemicals in your home, can be increasing your risk of lung disease.
Secondhand smoke from cigarettes is considered a pollutant and can be hazardous to your lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 7,300 people who never smoked die from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke every year. If you spend a lot of time with someone who smokes, distance yourself from the smoky air whenever possible to keep your lungs healthy.
Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas that naturally exists in soil, but it can get trapped in houses and buildings. In fact, one in every 15 homes can be exposed to radon, and the only way to find out if your home is affected is by having it tested. Luckily, there are many do-it-yourself test kits available for you to ensure you’re breathing clean air at home.
Some other damaging chemicals that might be lurking in your home are asbestos, paint products, carbon monoxide, lead and even cleaning supplies. Speak with your doctor if you believe these pollutants are making you sick.
Visit Your Doctor Regularly.
One of the uncontrollable lung cancer risk factors is your family history. If someone in your family has or had lung disease, then you are much more likely to get the disease as well. Your doctor will help you determine your risk and will discuss other ways you can keep your lungs healthy.
Even if lung disease doesn’t run in your family, visiting your doctor regularly is essential, especially since lung problems often go undetected until something is seriously wrong.
Getting sick with a cold or the flu can lead to complicated lung problems, which is why it’s so important to do everything you can to prevent infections:
- Regularly wash your hands with soap and water.
- Avoid crowded places during cold and flu season.
- Practice good oral hygiene by brushing your teeth at least twice a day and by visiting your dentist regularly.
- Get vaccinated for the flu every year, and ask your doctor if there are any other necessary vaccines you should get.
Aerobic exercises improves your lung capacity by increasing your breathing and heart rate. Examples of this type of exercise include walking, jogging, swimming, cycling and dancing. Exercises that promote deep-breathing techniques are other great options to benefit your lungs.
Healthy Lungs, Healthy Living
When it comes to promoting healthy lungs, much of it comes down to living a healthy lifestyle. While these preventative steps will benefit your lungs and your overall health, it’s important that you prepare for any emergency that may occur, especially since lung disease often causes shortness of breath and wheezing. Luckily with a Medical Guardian medical alert system, you have access to immediate help should you ever experience any lung problems.