Your chances of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, may be higher than you realize. As many as one in four people over age 35 are at risk for developing COPD, according to Canadian research reported in The Lancet. They reached this conclusion after studying government data on more than 13 million people over a 14-year period.
One of the most significant COPD risk factors is smoking. The more packs you smoke in a day and the younger you pick up the habit, the more likely you are to develop COPD. And if you smoke and are over 40, your risk is even higher. But the problem isn’t limited to your own actions. Being around others who are heavy smokers can increase your COPD risk, too.
“We’re not talking about, ‘Oh, I just got on an elevator with a man who smelled like a tobacco shop,’ but [rather] if you live for years in the same house with a spouse who smokes,” says Alan C. Jasper, MD, FCCP, FACP, a pulmonary specialist and medical director of intensive care units at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Assessing Your Personal COPD Risk Factors
Though smoking is the most common cause of COPD, as many as one in six people with COPD never smoked a cigarette or other tobacco products. Here are some other risk factors to consider.
Is Your Workplace Dusty?
“Dusty” jobs, such as working with asbestos, or welding or mining, can increase your risk for developing COPD, Dr. Jasper says. Long-term exposure to harsh workplace chemicals and fumes can increase your risk, too. Researchers in Pakistan found that workers who were exposed to silica dust, which comes from mining or quarrying, for 10 years or more were likely to develop COPD.
You don’t have to worry about the co-worker who douses herself in perfume, though. “As annoying as strong smells can be, they do not portend damage,” notes Jasper.
Do You Live In a Polluted Area?
Researchers in Denmark found that long-term exposure to even low-level air pollution can increase COPD risk. Their study, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, found that people living in the country’s two largest cities, Copenhagen and Aarhus, and exposed to traffic pollution for more than 35 years were at greater risk — and those who had diabetes and asthma were even more susceptible to COPD.
Do You Use a Coal-Burning or Wood-Burning Stove in Your Home?
Your coal or wood stove may keep you warm and cozy during the winter, but it could also increase your chances of developing COPD, especially if you have other risk factors. The stoves release tiny particles and gases that could send you to your doctor’s office. “Even gas stoves seem to be associated with more coughs among children than electric stoves,” Jasper says.
Do You Have a Family or Genetic History of COPD?
Certain genetic conditions can cause COPD. The most common known genetic COPD risk factor is alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency. AAT is a protein in the blood. When you have a deficiency in this protein, your infection-fighting white blood cells can attack your lungs, causing them to deteriorate. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is funding the largest-ever study of the genetics of COPD. Researchers hope to be able to identify other genetic factors that contribute to this devastating disease and find better ways to treat it.
Family may matter in other ways, too. A study from the University of California, San Francisco, for example, found that people who come from low-income and poorly educated households are at greater risk for developing COPD and having a more severe form of the condition.
Does Your Race or Gender Influence Your Risk?
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the number of Puerto Rican and non-Hispanic white adults with COPD was higher than non-Hispanic black and Mexican-American adults.
Cultural practices can be COPD risk factors, Jasper says. For instance, some people in Korea cook over charcoal braziers with poor ventilation, rural Latin Americans use wood fires to cook, and nomadic Asians use dung fires, all of which can release particles that may increase risk of COPD.
As for gender, in the past, men had a higher COPD risk than women. But statistics from the CDC show women may have more severe COPD and, in the United States, more women die of the lung condition than men.
Does Geography Make a Difference?
If you live in the eastern part of south-central states in the United States, which includes Alabama and Mississippi, your risk for developing COPD (7.5 percent) is almost double that of people in the Pacific states (3.9 percent), according to a CDC report.
Does your medical history put you at risk?
Research shows a link between gastric reflux (heartburn) and COPD, Jasper says. Reflux is considered to be among the causes of COPD and may worsen symptoms in people who already have it, he says.
Swallowing disorders also may be on the list of COPD risks, he says. And being a preemie, which can lead to lung damage, is yet another risk factor.
COPD is on the rise. According to the COPD Foundation, it will be the third leading cause of death by 2020. Knowing the causes and eliminating as many risk factors as possible can help you prevent it. Talk to your doctor about your medical and family history to see what else you could be doing to stay on top of your health.
Last Updated: 04/20/2012
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