doctor showing inhaler to husband and wifeResearch has shown that one in every seven adults above middle age lives with a respiratory issue. The changes our bodies experience with age increase the risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or pneumonia, which can affect quality of life.

In turn, everyday tasks like preparing a meal or doing laundry can become a significant challenge. Here’s what you should know about respiratory illnesses and breathing issues.

How the Lungs Work

The lungs allow oxygen to travel inside and be distributed through the body, expelling carbon dioxide whenever you exhale.

Flexible muscles and bands of tissue that facilitate breathing, which allow your airways to remain open. When air passes into your lungs, it allows oxygen to enter the bloodstream. At this point, carbon dioxide from your blood passes through small sacs to escape your lungs.

When this process becomes less efficient, carbon dioxide accumulates in the body and can cause a host of health issues, particularly in older people.

What Happens As You Age?

Decreased lung function occurs due to age-related physical changes. Bones start to thin, which alters the shape of the ribcage, including its capacity to expand when you breathe.

The diaphragm, which supports your body’s motions as you breathe, becomes weaker and affects how you inhale and exhale. On a smaller scale, the muscles and tissues helping your airways stay open start to weaken and change shape.

As a result of these factors, the amount of oxygen in your blood decreases. Your body also cannot remove carbon dioxide as efficiently, which may trap air in your lungs.

Secondary body functions may also affect how well you breathe. As the nervous system experiences decreased sensitivity, you can’t always sense outside particles in your lungs.

In addition to these changes, lifestyle factors may exacerbate respiratory issues, including obesity, a long history of smoking and decreased heart function.

Respiratory Health Conditions for the Elderly

Colds, heartburn or sinus infections can give way to a serious, potentially life-threatening respiratory condition. The elderly have a higher risk for developing:

  • Pneumonia
  • COPD
  • Asthma
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Pulmonary emphysema
  • Indirectly, heart failure often accompanies lung issues. The heart can’t pump blood as effectively, causing fluid to accumulate in the lungs. Patients recovering from a stroke or experiencing a neurological disorder may also display respiratory issues.

    What’s Normal vs. Concerning?

    Elderly adults experiencing age-related lung and breathing changes may feel more tired and unable to participate in strenuous aerobic activity. The following symptoms should be discussed with a doctor:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Chest pain
    • Chronic cough
    • Wheezing
    • Coughing up blood
    • Fever
    • Headache
    • Muscle pain
    • Coughing spells
    • Sleep disturbances
    • Swelling of the legs, feet or ankles
    • Constant fatigue

    Seek immediate medical attention if you:

    • Experience sudden and extreme shortness of breath or chest pain
    • Have a fever of 100 degrees F or higher
    • Are coughing up blood
    • Experience difficulty swallowing

    Reducing Your Risks

    To lessen your risk for more serious respiratory issues:

    • Stop smoking, which causes additional damage to the lungs
    • Start exercising to help combat decreased lung function
    • Avoid sitting or lying down for long periods of time, as mucus can gather in your airways and increase chances of a lung infection
    • Reduce any indoor air pollution, particularly from smoking and household chemicals
    • Lessen exposure to outdoor air pollution, including smoke and smog
    • Work to prevent respiratory illnesses, including the common cold and flu, by washing your hands, getting immunized and avoiding sick individuals

    The staff at West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center can provide treatment for respiratory conditions and hep you remain physically active. Contact us to learn more about our short-term rehabilitation and therapeutic recreation services today.