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The Importance of Respiratory Health in Seniors

Kristen Hicks
By Kristen HicksOctober 22, 2018
The Importance of Respiratory Health in Seniors

Did you know that chronic respiratory diseases are the third most common cause of death for seniors 65 and older? National Respiratory Care Week is here and it creates an opportunity to learn more about the respiratory health issues most likely to affect seniors.

Read more about the importance of respiratory health in seniors and how to work on improving health and reducing respiratory illnesses.

Common Respiratory Illnesses in Seniors

According to the American Association for Respiratory Care, these are the most common respiratory illnesses in seniors:

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1. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)

ARDS is a serious condition that most often occurs when a senior is already ill or has recently experienced a trauma. It’s caused by damage to the tiny blood vessels in the lungs, which causes too much fluid in the air sacs. This can be caused by a number of different trauma-related factors, including a blood or lung infection, an injury to the chest or head, or exposure to a toxic substance.

Whatever the specific cause, ARDS is a medical emergency because it prevents your organs from getting the oxygen they need. If not immediately addressed, it can cause organ failure and even death.

While ARDS can happen at any age, the effects can be especially severe for senior patients, with mortality rates around 70-80%. It’s crucial that any senior with ARDS get immediate treatment to increase their odds.

2. Aging Lungs

Unfortunately, all seniors can expect to feel the effects of weaker lungs as they age. Our bones change shape and become weaker with age, which causes the rib cage to contract so that our lungs can no longer expand as much when we breathe in.

The muscles in the respiratory system also weaken, which makes it harder to pull air in and push it out.

All of these changes can cause seniors to become more easily winded and make physical activity a little harder. Although if you’re otherwise healthy, the effects of aging lungs shouldn’t be too significant.

3. Asthma

Asthma is common in children, but can also cause serious problems for seniors. In the U.S., more than two million seniors have asthma.

The main symptoms of asthma in seniors are similar to what they are in people of any age: difficulty breathing, coughing and a lightness in the chest. But because of the other effects of aging, when these symptoms arise in the elderly, they’re more severe.

Asthma is often difficult to diagnose in seniors because the symptoms look similar to those of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But proper diagnosis is crucial for a patient to receive treatment to avoid possible respiratory failure.

4. Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is one of the two respiratory illnesses that fall under the label COPD. It occurs when the bronchial tubes, the airways that carry oxygen to the lungs, become inflamed. The inflamed tubes produce a lot of mucus, which leads to symptoms that include coughing, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing.

While acute bronchitis is common across age groups, as a chronic condition (meaning it lasts for months, rather than just days or weeks), seniors are at a higher risk.

It’s most frequently caused by smoking, but can also be the result of years spent breathing in air pollution, dust or fumes.

5. Emphysema

Emphysema is the other condition that’s included under the COPD label. It occurs when the inner walls of the air sacs in the lungs are weakened over time and rupture. Because the air sacs no longer work properly, when someone exhales, the old air becomes trapped and leaves no room for fresh air to enter, meaning less oxygen enters the bloodstream.

Many people with emphysema also have chronic bronchitis and the main causes are the same.

The primary symptom of early emphysema is shortness of breath and it can lead to heart problems and holes in the lungs.

6. Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)

IPF is a fairly rare respiratory disease characterized by a scarring and thickening in the lungs. The condition is most common in seniors and produces common symptoms that make it difficult to diagnose, such as coughing and fatigue.

The cause of the disease is unknown and the prognosis is serious. On average, only 20-30% of patients survive five years past the initial diagnosis.

But there are treatments that can slow the progression of IPF, so getting an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible is important.

7. Pleural Mesothelioma

Pleural mesothelioma is a form of cancer that develops in the lungs that is caused by exposure to asbestos. It routinely takes decades from the incidence of first exposure for the illness to develop and start showing symptoms, so it disproportionately affects seniors — over 90% of people diagnosed are over 55.

Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include a buildup of fluid in the lungs, chronic coughing, difficulty breathing and hoarseness.

While the prognosis for patients once diagnosed isn’t good – most die within two years of diagnosis — early detection and treatment can make a big difference in how long someone lives with the disease.

What Seniors Can Do to Improve Their Respiratory Health

There are three main steps seniors can take to improve their respiratory health and reduce the risk of being felled by these illnesses:

1. Exercise.

Staying physically active will help strengthen the lungs and reduce the effects of respiratory illnesses. Ask a doctor about safe exercises that a senior can do — remember not to overdo it and do further harm.

By adding some physical activity into a senior’s daily routine, the respiratory system can stay healthier longer.

2. Get frequent checkups.

For many of these disorders, early diagnosis and treatment can make a big difference. The most important step a senior can take is to go to the doctor regularly and talk honestly and openly about how they’re feeling.

Don’t discount any respiratory discomfort as a typical part of aging. Speak up if there is a problem that should be checked out. Sometimes mild symptoms can point to serious issues and it is better off being safe than sorry.

3. Stop smoking.

If a senior smokes now, make sure they quit. If not, try to avoid exposure to second-hand smoke.

Smoking is a factor in many of the respiratory illnesses described above and cutting exposure to cigarettes and smoke can play a big role in improving respiratory health.

Aging brings with it a lot of health issues that we have little control over, but you always have the power to take steps to stay healthier and reduce the risk of facing additional illnesses and issues.

For National Respiratory Care Week, commit to taking care of yourself, a parent or senior loved one and continue breathing easy.

What other respiratory health tips would you add to this list? We’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments below.

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Kristen Hicks
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Kristen Hicks

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