WALTHAM – Women are 37 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than men and now account for more than half of all COPD deaths in our nation. Today, the American Lung Association released the latest installment in its Disparities in Lung Health series, “Taking her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women.” The report explores how COPD has become a major and increasing health threat for women.
More than seven million women in the United States currently have COPD, and millions more have symptoms but have yet to be diagnosed. In Massachusetts alone, there are more than 176,000 reported cases of COPD in women, roughly 6.5 percent of the state’s population. The number of deaths from COPD among women has more than quadrupled since 1980, and the disease has claimed the lives of more women than men in this country each year since 2000.
“COPD, which once was known as a disease that plagues older males, is rapidly rising in the female population” said Jeff Seyler, President & CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast. “Our latest report sheds some light on why this disparity exists and what we can do as a nation, as a state and as individuals to help alleviate the burden on COPD patients, their families, and their caregivers.”
COPD is a progressive lung disease that slowly robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath. It is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans than COPD does. Of the 14.7 million people who have been diagnosed with COPD in this country, 58 percent of them are women. By the time most women are being diagnosed, it’s often when 50 percent of lung function or more is lost. Even then, women have serious challenges that impact their ability to manage their disease, resulting in a lower overall quality of life.
“COPD affects not just the patient but their families,” said Dr. David Neumeyer, pulmonary specialist at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington. “Continued education and awareness is an important piece of any comprehensive treatment plan, particularly as women are more prone to flare-ups, or sudden worsening of COPD symptoms that can require urgent care.”
Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, although there are other important causes. The report identifies a complex interplay of risk-factor exposures, biological susceptibility and sociocultural dynamics working together to increase COPD’s burden on women. Foremost, the rise of COPD in women is closely tied to the success of tobacco industry marketing that targeted women, particularly in the late 1960s. The tobacco industry’s success in addicting women to their products decades ago is still resulting in new cases of COPD and other tobacco-related illnesses in these women as they have aged.
Other key findings include:
– Since COPD has historically been thought of as a “man’s disease,” women are underdiagnosed and undertreated for COPD.
– Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants.
– Women are especially more vulnerable to COPD before the age of 65.
– Women with COPD have more frequent disease flare-ups—a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms that is often caused by a cold or other lung infection.
– Effective treatment of COPD is complicated, and women don’t always get the kind of care that meets their needs.
– The quality of life for women with COPD is impaired at an earlier age, and is worse overall than that of men with similar severity of disease.
In Massachusetts, the American Lung Association is calling on the legislature to fund the state’s tobacco control program at or above the CDC-recommended level, to provide adequate cessation coverage and to raise the state tobacco tax. The state’s failure to invest enough resources in its tobacco control program and its lack of access to cessation coverage were highlighted in the American Lung Association’s State of Tobacco Control 2013 report.
“To reduce the number of Massachusetts residents affected by COPD, we need to further reduce smoking. Raising cigarette taxes is proven effective in discouraging youth from smoking and prompting smokers to quit,” said Casey Harvell, Director of Public Policy for the American Lung Association in Massachusetts. “In Massachusetts, we are asking the legislature to raise the tax by at least one dollar, a move that is widely supported by residents throughout the state.”
The American Lung Association calls on government agencies, the research and funding community, insurers and health systems, employers, clinicians, women and their families to take steps now to address this deadly disease. These steps are detailed in the full report, and include the strengthening of the public health response to COPD including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) creating and supporting a comprehensive COPD program similar to what is already in place for other major public health problems; increased investment in gender-specific COPD research; expanded efforts to protect everyone from harmful exposures that cause COPD such as cigarette smoke and outdoor air pollution; and implementation of health care systems changes to improve the timeliness and quality of COPD care.
The American Lung Association offers support groups for those affected by COPD, known as Better Breathers Clubs, throughout the country. Massachusetts offers several across the state. For more information on Better Breathers Clubs in your area, or to speak with an experienced lung health clinician, call the Lung HelpLine at 800-LUNG-USA.
The full report is available on the American Lung Association’s website at www.lung.org/copdinwomen.