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Aging Shouldn’t Take Your Breath Away

Two million of us live with it – and we estimate that it’s affecting one million more Canadians without their knowledge. What makes COPD the most common chronic illness that nobody’s talking about?

When blogger and advocate Barbara Moore was diagnosed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2015, she found herself with a lot to learn, and fast. “I had very little knowledge of COPD or how serious it was when I started on my journey, which created challenges when it came to being diagnosed and getting on the right treatment.”

Barbara isn’t alone. Our latest national research study found that 65% of COPD patients studied had been experiencing symptoms for a year or more, but only 44% even knew what COPD was!

Not just one disease

Typically diagnosed in older adults, COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it difficult – very difficult – to move air in and out of the lungs. In chronic bronchitis, the airways become swollen and filled with mucus. In emphysema, the air sacs in the lungs are damaged. People with COPD can live with both conditions. Both are bad news for breathing.

COPD is Canada’s number one cause of hospitalization, and there is currently no cure. Since it worsens over time, spotting the symptoms early is critical.  If aging vibrantly is your goal, it’s time to listen to your lungs!

Breathlessness does not fall into the same category as laugh lines

COPD symptoms tend to start slowly over time. You may experience a wheezy whistle from the lungs as you climb up the stairs, or an unfamiliar shortness of breath (dyspnea) while working out. In others, COPD symptoms may look more like a knack for coughing up phlegm, a pesky and persistent cough, or unrelentingly frequent colds and respiratory infections that long outstay their welcome.

Shortness of breath and other COPD symptoms should never be dismissed as part and parcel of healthy aging.

Stigma stings

Many things can cause COPD, but it’s estimated that between 80 to 90 per cent of COPD cases are a result of tobacco use. Unfortunately, your COPD risk is elevated whether you still light up or you went smoke-free decades ago. If you have ever dismissed your symptoms as “smoker’s cough”, it’s time to get checked out for COPD.

Regardless of your smoking history, you deserve to breathe your best.

Mind the (diagnosis) gap

Spirometry is a simple, quick, and painless diagnostic test that measures how well your lungs are working. It’s known as the “gold standard” for accurate and repeatable measurement of lung function. In non-medical terms, it’s a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, this simple breathing test isn’t being performed as often as it should. Our Missing Million study found that among patients experiencing symptoms, only 44% will have a spirometry test to investigate further.

So stand up for your lungs! Ask your healthcare provider about having a spirometry test done.

Living your best life with COPD

While COPD cannot be cured, it can be treated at every stage to improve your symptoms, keep you active, and maintain your quality of life. Treatments plans could include inhalers, anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics to treat certain infections, or the use of supplemental oxygen if the oxygen level in your blood gets too low. Pulmonary rehabilitation, which includes supervised exercise, is another powerful tool that can be used to manage COPD and keep you active!

Outside of medication, quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your lungs if you have COPD. Your healthcare provider can help you find a quit method that’s right for you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Like many chronic illnesses, the earlier the COPD is caught, the better. That’s why we recommend that all older adults look out for the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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