Age Healthier, Breathe Easier

By Kathy Sykes

One of the indelible memories I have of my grandfather, Lars Svensson, was the trouble he had breathing. For as long as I can remember he struggled to breathe, even when we went for a short walk or just a few feet to the mail box in the front yard. My grandfather was a smoker and suffered from a serious lung disease called emphysema, also known as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
COPD is now the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and also causes long-term disability. Both asthma and COPD are common chronic respiratory diseases that take a toll on the quality of life for persons of all ages. More than 12 million Americans suffer from COPD and another 12 million may have it and not know it.

I was a teenager when my grandfather died, at a time when very little was known about treating the disease. We fortunately know a lot more now about living with COPD and asthma including how to avoid the environmental triggers that can cause an attack. By reducing exposure to environmental triggers one can control and reduce the frequency of symptoms and make it easier to breathe.

Triggers in the environment include outdoor particle pollution and ozone. Indoors, where we spend 90 percent of our time, common indoor hazards may trigger an asthma or COPD attack including tobacco smoke, direct and second-hand smoke, animal dander, dust mites and cockroaches, mold, and pollen. It is also important to check furnace and heating units each year and fix water leaks quickly help to reduce the occurrence of these triggers in your home. Pesticides, household cleaning products and substances with irritating odors may also exacerbate COPD and asthma. And don’t forget to check the air quality index where you live to see if the air quality is a problem. If it is, reduce outdoor activity as much as possible on poor air quality days.

Asthma and COPD have a lot in common and affect the health and quality of life of older Americans. The U.S. EPA Aging Initiative has developed a poster in English and Spanish called Age Healthier, Breathe Easier. The fact sheet on the same topic has been translated into 17 languages.

About the author: Kathy Sykes began working for the U.S. EPA in 1998. Since 2002, she has served as the Senior Advisor for the Aging Initiative.

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