COPD – The Silent Epidemic

COPD affects an estimated 30 million Americans, and over half of them have symptoms but do not know it…

So, why am I writing about something so depressing right after Thanksgiving? Because Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) killed over 150,000 Americans last year. It’s the third largest killer in our country after heart disease and cancer. Over 16 million of us have been diagnosed with this irreversible disease with no cure, and another 10-15 million will develop it without knowing it. Early screening can identify COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.

What are the risk factors and common causes of COPD?

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants including smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and second-hand smoke. Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments are contributing factors for those who develop COPD.  Genetics can also play a role in the development of COPD—even if you have never smoked or been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace. Another major factor is simply the air we breathe.

“It is enough to be grateful for the next breath.” ~ Br. David Steindl-Rast

I learned that I have COPD last winter after noticing how much of a struggle it was to breathe properly at 7,000 feet elevation. I had had no symptoms living at 5,000 feet for decades. I never smoked cigarettes and exercised regularly, but I still had bronchitis many, many times in my life. Cat scans also found nodules in my lungs, which can be a precursor to a lung cancer. The good news? My increased awareness and monitoring of my lung problems.

Go watch this excellent piece that appeared on CBS Sunday Morning this week to learn more about how COPD can be helped in pulmonary rehabilitation centers. Unfortunately, COPD has a big image problem, one that is keeping it from receiving needed government funding for research.

As you might guess, I have learned so much about this common killer, one that will only get more common as air quality declines. The first thing I learned is something that Senior Contributor Ted Koppel’s wife, Grace Anne Dorney Koppel also talks about in the above CBS piece. COPD can be seen as a “it’s your own damn fault” disease.

lung association

So now, when I tell others that I have COPD and they invariably ask me, “Did you smoke?” I respond with, “No, but I did breathe!”

To quote Grace Koppel, “Disease is blame free.”

 

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COPD in Women

“When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”  — American Lung Association

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen, that I have a hard time breathing, especially when my annual bout with bronchitis arrived. Most ignored me or looked like they wished I would shut up, so I did. I decided they probably knew better than me. Then last fall a doctor gave me a reality check. After a night-long breathing test and a pulmonary function test, she told me I have COPD with a possibility of worse. X-rays and cat scans followed.

All I know is I have a terrible time breathing here above 7,000 feet. I guess I had to move here to know for sure…

Do you have any idea how demoralizing this is? To be told at age 61 that your ability to breath is not good, and will never get better. I’ve always done whatever I wanted to, but that is over. I’ve climbed fourteeners! It wasn’t ever easy, but I’ve done it!

So today I went to the American Lung Association page and found: “Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women”  Here’s a few fun facts about COPD:

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that slowly robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath. It is the third leading cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by heart disease and cancer, and is not decreasing nearly as quickly as the other two

Did you know that more than 7 million women in the U.S. live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema? Millions more have the disease, but are undiagnosed, possibly because female COPD patients are commonly misdiagnosed with asthma.

In fact, the number of deaths among women from COPD has increased four-fold over the past three decades, and since 2000 more American women than men have died of the disease. Additionally, research shows women diagnosed with COPD experience higher rates of anxiety, depression and report lower quality of life.

The greatest difficulty for me, besides accepting this miserable diagnosis, is how discouraging exercising is. If walking around town is challenging, what then?

My favorite part of the above-mentioned document about COPD, is the last paragraph where the Lung Association encourages people like me “to speak out about the toll COPD is taking in [our] lives…learn more about how it affects us; advocate for our own best care, and become a voice for other women with COPD in my community.”

The American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report finds that 4 in 10 Americans live in counties with unhealthful levels of air pollution, putting them at risk for premature death and other serious health effects like lung cancer, asthma attacks cardiovascular damage and developmental and reproductive harm.”