For generations of women born after World War II, making their mark toward equality in society and in the workplace often meant adopting a habit many men had embraced: smoking cigarettes. But experts say the consequence of that habit is now taking its toll on women of a certain age.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is responsible for more deaths in women than breast cancer and diabetes combined, according to the COPD Foundation. In 2010, COPD surpassed strokes to become the third-leading cause of death in America. More women are diagnosed with, and die from, COPD than men, a stark change from only 10 years ago; and more than 90 percent of deaths from COPD occur in adults 65 and older.
The No. 1 cause of COPD is smoking cigarettes, followed by industrial pollutants and other biohazards. But it's not just heavy lifetime smokers who are at risk. The COPD Foundation says if you have smoked even 100 cigarettes in your lifetime, you are at increased risk. Add in years of secondhand smoke from a time when lighting up was common in bars, restaurants and businesses, and the risk is heightened further. The National Institutes of Health notes that 1 in 6 people diagnosed with COPD have never smoked.
"Women's lungs are generally smaller than men's," says Jane Martin, a respiratory therapist and associate director of education at the COPD Foundation. "Smoking and hazards damage the lungs equally, therefore the women have more proportionate lung damage than a man does." What makes the disease even more insidious is that many women compensate for the shortness of breath by cutting back on physical activity, making their overall health worse.
Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath and chest tightness. Another sign is if you get a cold that lingers longer than a week. There is no cure, but treatments and inhaled medications can relieve some symptoms.
About 15 million American adults have been diagnosed with COPD, but another 12 million are believed to have the disease and don't know it. Martin says women tend to ignore the warning signs. "She might think, 'Oh, I'm just out of shape, I'm getting older, I'm just tired.' " Making the problem worse is that some primary-care physicians do not suspect COPD when a woman complains of shortness of breath. Martin says the doctor will often diagnose the woman with bronchitis or asthma. "They're not thinking of women and COPD," Martin says.
For more, go to copdfoundation.org or the National Institutes of Health page at bit.ly/NIH-COPD.