Learn more about one of the surprising killers of women, and get the facts that could save your life .
It kills more women than breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, anddiabetes. If that’s not enough to get your attention, consider this: More women than men die from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, orCOPD. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, an umbrella term that covers chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other diseases that involve progressive damage to the lungs.
“It used to be an all-boys party,” says Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. “But the burden of the disease recently crossed over.” One reason: Women started smoking later than men. “It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that smoking rates picked up for women,” explains Schachter. “And now we’ve reached the time where we start to see the effects.” COPD is number four on the list of top lady-killers; here are seven more things you need to know and reasons you should care about this deadly disease.
1. You could have it, and not know it. An estimated 12 million Americans are walking around winded, blaming old age and added weight. Shortness of breath is the cardinal symptom of COPD, says Timothy R. Wu, MD, director of the COPD Center at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. But because the disease develops slowly, mild signs are sometimes easy to miss; plus, people tend to adapt their behavior to compensate. “If you can’t catch your breath going up a flight of stairs, next time you’ll probably take the elevator and not give it a second thought,” he says. Persistent coughing and chest congestion or excess phlegm are also indicative of COPD; for most people, symptoms start to surface around age 40.
2. You could have it, and your doctor might not know it either.Studies have shown that when men and women presented the same symptoms, men were more often correctly diagnosed with COPD. Women were incorrectly diagnosed with asthma, says Wu. Currently, more than 12 million people in the US know they have COPD, and while the screening test literally takes seconds, it’s grossly underutilized, adds Schachter. All you have to do is take a deep breath and blow into a machine for a count of six seconds. The machine (called a spirometer) measures how “big” your lungs are and how fast you breathe air out of them. The test—known as spirometry—can detect COPD even before symptoms appear, and help determine its severity. “It’s important for anyone over age 40 with a history of smoking, or any symptoms at all, to talk to their doctor and ask to be screened,” says Wu, but women should be extra vigilant. “Though we’re getting better at diagnosing the disease, many doctors still lean toward assigning COPD to men.”
3. Smoking might cause your lungs more harm. That’s because women have narrower airways than men, so the toxins in cigarettes may have a stronger effect, even if they smoke the same amount, explains Wu. Still, heavy and long-term smoking is the most significant risk factor for both men and women, it’s the most common cause of COPD, and it’s responsible for up to 90% of related deaths. Breathing in other irritants, such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, and chemical fumes or dust from the environment or workplace can also inflame the lungs and contribute to increasing your risk.
4. Breathing in bad stuff isn’t the only way to get COPD.Researchers are studying different potential predispositions to the disease—genetic or otherwise; one known genetic disorder called alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency is the source of a few cases of COPD. Also under investigation: if female sex hormones may make women more prone to developing the disease.
5. You’ll need to see your doctor more often. There’s no cure for COPD, but the right treatment plan can help control symptoms and delay the progress of the disease. Frequent checkups are important so your doctor can monitor your medications and keep you informed of new options (last March, the FDA approved a drug to reduce flare-ups and symptoms in some patients). Your doctor may also recommend nicotine replacement products and drugs to help you quit smoking; discuss different COPD therapies (such as pulmonary rehabilitation or oxygen treatment); talk to you about getting the flu or pneumonia vaccines (both of which can cause complications); and keep an eye on your overall health. “COPD is a systemic disease that’s linked to an increased risk of heart disease, depression and number of other conditions,” says Wu.
6. You shouldn’t stop exercising. Regular physical activity can ease COPD symptoms and boost energy, strengthen your heart and respiratory muscles, help you lose weight, fight depression, and most importantly, help your body use oxygen better. Just don’t push yourself too hard: “Walking 30 minutes, three times a week, for example, is a healthy amount of exercise,” suggests Schachter. Stretching is also a good option to reduce injuries and improve flexibility; upper body strength training is especially helpful to build respiratory muscles. “Anything that gets you moving is good, but talk to your doctor before starting any workout program,” advises Schachter.
7. You might need to redecorate. “Think minimalist,” says Schachter. Cut down on the knickknacks and trinkets, rethink long drapes, wall-to-wall carpet, and roll up some throw rugs—“They’re all collecting dust and allergens that can irritate your airways and increase breathing problems,” he says. More tips to help keep indoor air clean: Open the windows to help ventilate your home after using smelly cleaning products, bug sprays, and paint; and ban smoking indoors.