We are all born with greater lung capability than we would ever need in our lifetimes. When we inhale, we replenish our body’s supply of oxygen. Carbon dioxide is exhaled out of the body. For a healthy lifestyle, both functions are required. However, various health issues or even the natural aging process may have a substantial impact on our capacity to breathe comfortably. If the diaphragm muscles weaken as a person age, it may become harder for them to breathe and causes many breathing disorders from minor ones such as shortness of breath to major ones like pneumonia, asthma, and bronchitis.
Knowing how your lungs operate is essential if you want to know how aging affects them. To get a deep insight into how this system works, you can refer to our article here.
Age-Related Changes in Lungs
The state of one’s lungs, in particular, might deteriorate with time. It’s easy to assume that you’ll always be able to breathe comfortably, but as we age, our lungs weaken and become more susceptible to illness. The way you breathe changes as you grow older because of these changes. As you become older, these and other changes might make you more susceptible to breathing problems.
The following changes can occur as we age,
1. Stiffening of Rib Cage.
We know our bones won’t be as strong and smooth as before. Our rib cage may harden and stiffen like other bones and joints. Your ribs lose some of their bulk over time because you lose bones. American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Proceedings found that ribs calcify with aging. They become brittle and stiff. The X-rays revealed according to a study that calcification grew from 6% in a person’s 30s to 45% in his or her 90s. Calcification causes a stiffer, less mobile rib cage. The rib cage may shrink when the intercostal muscles weaken and shrink and may squeeze the lungs, making breathing harder.
These alterations to the bones and muscles may reduce the amount of oxygen in the body. Additionally, less carbon dioxide may be eliminated from the body. Symptoms may include fatigue and shortness of breath.
2. Changes in the Lung Tissues.
With the passage of time lungs change, too. They become flaccid and less elastic, losing their property of recoiling back. Also, as a result of aging, the air sacs lose their structure and become saggy. Aging contributes to a loss in respiratory muscle mass and strength, as well as a deterioration in respiratory function. The diaphragm, the muscle that supports respiration, gets weaker. Thus, in return, they require more surrounding muscles to work. This weakness may hinder adequate inhalation and expiration. This may begin as early as 40 years of age.
3. Prone to Toxicity.
Your immune system might weaken over time. This reduces your body’s ability to fight against lung infections and other illnesses. Additionally, your lungs are less able to recuperate after being exposed to smoke or other hazardous particles. In the Journals of Gerontology, researchers found that as people age, the lungs are repeatedly exposed to a variety of environmental pollutants. Air pollution, cigarette smoke, industrial dust, and respiratory diseases are just a few examples. They become more prone to toxicity and inflammation according to 2013 research.
4. Changes in the Nervous System.
The brain and its nerve system are also essential for respiration since they transmit information between the brain and lungs. This may cause issues by reducing oxygen intake and increasing carbon dioxide retention. Over time, signals from the brain to the lungs and nerves throughout the lungs may become less responsive. If nerves are unable to detect dust or other particles, this might create breathing problems or a buildup in the lungs.
5. Reduced Lung Capacity.
The greatest quantity of air that your lungs can contain, known as your total lung capacity, is around 6 liters. As you age, though, your lung function steadily falls. This is around 5 liters for the average man at 25 and declines to approximately 3.9 liters at age 65. In women, it falls from around 3.5 liters to approximately 2.8 liters. Decreased lung function is associated with reduced ventilation of air and oxygen intake, especially during exercising. These decreases are mainly related to chest-wall stiffness and respiratory muscle weakness as they had been studied. In addition, reduced lung function could also affect other body functions such as sleep.
One may discover that breathing is more difficult than it was when you were younger, or that you have frequent shortness of breath.
Even in healthy individuals who have never smoked, forced vital capacity might drop by roughly 0.2% every decade.
Immunocompromised individuals and the elderly are at a greater risk for breathing problems and bronchitis, shortness of breath, low oxygen levels, and breathing problems such as sleep apnea. This is due to the fact that as you age, the physical components involved in breathing might begin to degrade or function less effectively. As a consequence of these changes, the risk for the following is enhanced for the elderly, such as infections of the lungs, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, shortest of breath, resulting in issues such as sleep apnea, are caused by low oxygen levels (episodes of stopped breathing during sleep).
What Are Breathing Disorders?
When you cannot get enough oxygen, your chest feels extremely tight, you are short of breath, or you feel as if you are suffocating, you are experiencing breathing problems. According to WHO, one may have shortness of breath if one is obese or if one has recently engaged in vigorous exercise. It may also occur under conditions of severe temperature or altitude.
When they have a cold, some individuals have more difficulties breathing than others do. In some people, the condition is brought on by illnesses such as sinusitis. Viruses and allergens may reach your lungs via your nose route. Numerous breathing problems have been connected to issues with the nose and sinuses. Asthma episodes may be triggered by inflammation of the nasal or sinus passages. And allergies are the most common cause of asthma. A variety of lung disorders might result in breathing problems. Many of these conditions need prompt medical care.
Asthma is a disorder characterized by constricted and swollen airways that may create excess mucus. This may make it difficult to breathe and cause coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. For some, asthma is a minor inconvenience. Anything can cause asthma such as pollen, dust mites, animal hair, and feathers. Smoke, emissions, mold and pollution, anti-inflammatory analgesics such as ibuprofen and aspirin, and emotions, such as anxiety or joy. Anyone may get asthma. It is more frequent in allergic or tobacco-exposed persons.
Effect of Aging? Several European and US research reveal asthma prevalence among over-65s ranging from 1.8% to 10.9%.
Pneumonia is an illness that inflames the air sacs of the lungs (alveoli). The air sacs may fill with fluid or pus due to an infection, resulting in cough, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. This pulmonary illness is contagious. Infants under 2 and the elderly above 65 are more in danger because their immune systems are weak. Many types of microorganisms can cause it, such as Bacteria, viruses, or fungus. Common ones include Flu and Cold viruses, RSV virus (the top cause of pneumonia in babies age 1 or younger)
and the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae and Mycoplasma pneumonia.
Cigarette smoking, hospitalization, certain medical conditions, and excessive alcohol use may also increase pneumonia risk. Approximately 450 million people have been affected worldwide annually, and the disease is widespread.
Effect of Aging? Pneumonia is more common in elderly adults than in younger ones. Recent research showed that almost 1 million senior Americans are hospitalized with pneumonia each year.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
COPD is an umbrella term for many different types of breathing problems including Emphysema, which is an injury to the air sacs in the lungs, and Chronic bronchitis which is long-term inflammation of the airways. COPD is a prevalent disease that mostly affects middle-aged or older smokers. Many individuals are unaware they have it. The breathing problems worsen with time and may impede regular activities, although medication can reduce them. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chronic cough with clear, white, yellow, or greenish phlegm, unintended weight loss, chest tightness, frequent lung infections, low oxygen levels, and lack of energy.
In 1% of COPD cases, a genetic condition produces low alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAt) levels. More than 65 million people throughout the globe have moderate or severe COPD, and experts project that this figure will continue to climb globally over the next 50 years.
Effect of Aging? Over the age of 60, the prevalence of COPD is two to three times greater than in younger age groups.
Tuberculosis, often known as TB, is a lung disease. Mycobacterium Tuberculosis is the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. It is a contagious condition that may readily spread to the spine and other areas of the body. There are two types of tuberculosis: active and latent. TB may lie latent for years prior to manifesting as an active illness. Some individuals who acquire the tuberculosis-causing bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis do not exhibit symptoms. This is referred to as latent tuberculosis TB. Active tuberculosis symptoms include, cough lasting longer than three weeks. appetite loss and unintended weight loss, unintended weight loss, and night sweats.
Effect of Aging? Adults 65 and older had the highest tuberculosis incidence rate (3.4 per 100,000 people) in 2020.
Pulmonary hypertension occurs when the pressure in the blood arteries connecting the heart and lungs is elevated. With pulmonary hypertension, the pulmonary blood vessels grow an increased amount of muscle in the vessel walls. The first indication of pulmonary hypertension is shortness of breath during daily activities like climbing stairs. Other symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, and fainting. As cardiac strain rises, ankle, abdominal, and leg swelling is also observed, and blue lips and skin, and chest discomfort may result. Left-sided heart and lung disorders are now the leading cause of pulmonary hypertension.
Global estimates of pulmonary hypertension vary from 20 million to as many as 70 million individuals. Its incidence increases with age.
Effect of Aging? US and European registries corroborate the rising prevalence of elderly patients upon diagnosis, with 9–13.5 % aged >70.
Diagnosing Breathing Disorders
Doctors diagnose breathing problems by doing a physical examination (learn more about how a physical examination can be performed here), interrogating you about your general health, and conducting several diagnostic tests. The overall objective is to evaluate how much air your lungs can retain, how effectively oxygen replaces carbon dioxide, and how rapidly your lungs take in and release air. The following are the most used in medical settings are,
- X-rays and CT scans. Your physician may take an X-ray of your chest to examine your heart, lungs, and bones. A chest X-ray is an effective diagnostic tool for pneumonia. However, it cannot diagnose most breathing disorders on its own. Some individuals with respiratory issues may need a chest CT scan. If you have chronic sinusitis, your doctor may conduct a particular CT scan of the sinuses. Note that it is discouraged to receive radiation due to its effect on human health; so only consider it when it is considered relevant or necessary.
- Spirometer. Spirometry is the most frequent lung test, and it involves inhaling via a mouthpiece coupled to a spirometer. The spirometer measures a variety of aspects of lung capacity, including speed and volume.
- Gas diffusion. The ability of the lungs to absorb air is assessed using gas diffusion tests, which quantify the amount of air that passes through the alveoli each minute.
- Inhalation challange. The inhalation test is a kind of test that evaluates how resistant your lungs are to being irritated by various substances. It is used mostly for asthmatic patients.
- Body plethysmography. Determines overall lung capacity as well as the amount of air that remains in the lungs after a complete exhale.
- Bronchophony. Bronchoscopy is used to diagnose lung problems. A bronchoscope tube is inserted via the mouth or nose to examine lung airways. Bronchoscopy may detect mucous, obstructions, and lung bleeding. It detects infection and tumors. After bronchoscopy, chest x-rays may be taken. This test examines the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in an artery’s blood sample.
- Pulse oximeter test. This non-painful test examines the amount of oxygen in your blood. The physician attaches a probe to your finger, earlobe, or another area of skin. The gadget measures the amount of oxygen in your red blood cells using light.
- Exercise test. These tests analyze the impact that exercise has on the lungs.
- Multiple-breath washout. Patients diagnosed with cystic fibrosis will need to do this test.
Preventing Breathing Disorders
Even if you don’t give your lungs much thought, if you want to avoid breathing problems, you need to adopt certain lifestyle adjustments. Even if you can’t change everything, there are still numerous things you can do to protect your lungs. To guarantee that your lungs are always working at their best, you need to adopt certain lifestyle adjustments. Following these instructions will allow you to keep good breathing throughout your lifetime.
- Don’t smoke. Quit smoking if you’re a habitual smoker. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer are all linked to smoking. It narrows the airways, resulting in breathing difficulties. The lungs’ tissues may be damaged as a result, among other things. Quitting smoking may lower your risk of lung disease and save you money in the long run.
- Avoid Pollution. Preventing respiratory illness may also be prevented by reducing outdoor air pollution, which can cause respiratory difficulties in certain people. So, it is better to minimize your exposure to pollution — indoors and outdoors.
- Keep Moving. Long durations of bed rest or sitting may cause mucus to collect in the lungs, putting you at risk for lung infections. This is especially true after surgery or while unwell. Get the appropriate amount of physical activity for your age and ability. If you are unclear about how much physical activity you can manage, see your healthcare professional. Regular physical activity may enhance lung function.
- Using Protective Equipment at work: Some employees may be exposed to dust, chemicals, or fumes in the workplace. These individuals have to wear a mask to prevent breathing these irritants.
- Prevent Infections. Many things can prevent infection. During flu season, avoid crowds. When sick, avoid others to protect them. Keep your teeth clean. Handwashing also prevents infections. Consult your doctor about respiratory vaccines to avoid breathing disorders. They will look at your background to see whether that’s the proper move.
- Do Breathing Exercise. Breathing exercises are sometimes used as a component of pulmonary rehabilitation for disorders affecting the lungs. People with asthma, COPD, and other illnesses that cause shortness of breath benefit most from them. Additionally, they may aid a person who is nervous. The American Lung Association recommends two distinct breathing techniques: pursed lip breathing and diaphragmatic (belly) breathing.
Pursed Lip Breathing.
This exercise decreases your breathing rate and keeps your airways open for longer. Your lung capacity is increased, allowing you to engage in greater physical activity. To practice it, just breathe in with your nose and your mouth closed. Inhale for two seconds. As if whistling or blowing out a flame, pucker the lips and exhale for 4 seconds.
People with COPD who practice pursed lip breathing see considerable health advantages. One study discovered that pursed lip breathing decreased spontaneous hyperinflation in COPD patients. Additionally, their exercise tolerance, breathing patterns, and arterial oxygen levels increased dramatically.
As with pursed-lip breathing, inhale through your nose. Observe how your stomach expands. Put your hands or a tissue box on your tummy to feel your belly rise and fall. Exhale for twice as long as you inhale. Relax your neck and shoulders while retraining your diaphragm to help you breathe. Repeat these instructions every five to ten minutes. Maintaining the hands on the belly might increase awareness of the proper breathing technique.
People with COPD should use diaphragmatic breathing. COPD weakens the diaphragm, hence diaphragm-specific breathing exercises may improve breathing.
- Small, quiet breaths in and out via the nose.
- Hold your breath by pinching your nose;
- Hold your breath while you walk. Without overdoing it, creates a sense of air shortage.
- Breathe solely via your nose; calm your breathing instantly.
- First breath after beginning breathing is usually greater than normal and limit your second and third breaths;
- You should recover in two to three breaths. If not, you’ve waited too long;
- Repeat after a minute.
- Repeat until the nose is clear.
Despite the fact that aging causes a loss of lung function, there are ways to keep yourself as healthy as possible. There are several strategies to preserve and enhance your lungs, such as exercising regularly, avoiding smoking, and keeping up with vaccines. The correct diagnosis and therapy, as well as a greater knowledge of your situation, may assist you in managing your breathing problems.
Here’s a detailed article that offer various techniques to breathe healthfully; check it out!