COPD: Am I At Risk?
to the Centers of Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth
leading cause of death in the United States. This disease kills more than 120,000
Americans annually—the equivalent of one death every four minutes, and the
numbers are increasing.
2011, 12 million people in the United States were diagnosed with COPD. It may
be as much as 16 million currently. Another 12 million people may have the
disease without knowing it.
develops slowly and usually worsens over time. In the early stages, the disease
may have no symptoms. Early prevention and treatment can help avoid serious
lung damage, respiratory problems, and even heart failure. The first step is to
recognize your personal risk factors for developing this disease.
main risk factor for COPD is smoking, which causes up to 90 percent of COPD
deaths, according to the American
Lung Association (ALA). Smokers are approximately 13 times more likely to
die from the disease than those who have never smoked. Long-term exposure to
tobacco smoke is particularly dangerous. The more years and the more packs you
smoke, the greater your risk. Pipe smokers and cigar smokers are all at
to secondhand smoke also increases your risk. Secondhand smoke includes both
the smoke from burning tobacco and smoke exhaled by a smoker.
smoking is by far the principal risk factor for COPD, it isn’t the only one.
Indoor and outdoor pollutants can also cause the condition when exposure is
intense or prolonged. Indoor air pollution includes particulate matter from the
smoke of solid fuel used for cooking and heating. Examples include poorly
ventilated wood stoves, burning biomass or coal, or cooking with fire. Exposure
to heavy amounts of environmental pollution is another risk factor. Indoor air
quality plays a large role in the progression of COPD in developing countries. But
urban air pollution—such as traffic and combustion-related pollution—poses a
greater health risk worldwide.
Dusts and Chemicals
Long-term exposure to industrial dust,
chemicals, and gases can irritate and inflame the airways and lungs, increasing
your chance of COPD. People in professions that deal with frequent exposure to
dust and chemical vapors, such as coal miners, grain handlers, and metal
molders, have a greater likelihood of developing the disease. One study in
Journal of Epidemiology found that the fraction
of COPD attributed to work was estimated at 19.2 percent overall and 31.1
percent among those who had never smoked.
In rare cases, genetic factors can cause
people who have never smoked or had long-term particulate exposure to develop
COPD. The genetic disorder results in a lack of the protein α1-antitrypsin
(AAT). An estimated 100,000 Americans have AAT deficiency, though few people
are aware of it. While AAT deficiency is the only established genetic risk
factor for COPD, it’s likely that several genes are additional risk factors. Researchers
haven’t yet proven this.
is most common in people at least 40 years old who have a history of smoking. Incidence
increases with age. Though there is nothing you can do about your age, you can
take steps to stay healthy. If you have risk factors for COPD, it’s important
to discuss them with your doctor. The ALA recommends talking to your doctor
proactively about COPD if you are over the age of 45, have family members with
the disease, or are a current or former smoker. Early detection of COPD is the
key to successful treatment.