As part of our regular series on the risks of getting common chronic diseases, we look at COPD.
COPD, which affects around 1.4 million people in England, is an umbrella term which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which are chronic inflammatory conditions of the lungs. It is a life threatening lung disease that interferes with normal breathing and affects men and women almost equally. It is much more likely to affect older people over the age of 50 and is linked with smoking. In the UK, it is estimated that 18 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women aged 40-68 years may have developed features of COPD such as shortness of breath,chronic cough and wheezing. In the past, men were much more likely to be diagnosed with COPD than women, but that has now changed as rates of smoking have increased in women and because women seem to be more susceptible to the harmful effects of tobacco smoke, so that rates are broadly similar in women and men.
According to research published in the Journal of Public Health in 2006, adults in England will see their risk steadily rising as the years go by. If you are under the age of 45, you have a 1.32 per cent chance of having COPD but by the time, you reach 64, that had leapt to 4.22 per cent. 65-74 year olds have a 7.93 per cent chance of having COPD and over 75-year olds have an 8.72 per cent chance of developing the disease.
‘Age is important because damage to the airways and the lung tissue caused by smoking accumulates over time. The airways become inflamed and narrowed and the walls of the air sacs in the lung where oxygen is absorbed, called “alveoli”, break down making the lungs baggy and inefficient. Smoking massively accelerates the normal small decline in lung function seen with age. Stopping smoking can prevent this lung damage progressing and is the best way to reduce or get rid of symptoms like cough, sputum and breathlessness,’says Dr Nicholas Hopkinson, consultant chest physician at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and, medical adviser at the British Lung Foundation.
Interestingly, your geographic location also makes a difference to your risk. In studies, people living in the north east and north west regions have some of the highest prevalence of the disease while people living in the south east of England have a much lower risk. ‘This is mostly due to smoking rates but poverty, particularly in early life, can impact on lung development meaning the young people’s lungs never achieve their optimum function,’ explains Dr Hopkinson. ‘Industrial occupations and those where people are exposed to dust fumes or chemicals such as cleaning also increase the lifetime risk of developing COPD.’