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The Importance of Preserving Senior Respiratory Health

As we grow older, our bodies begin to change and adapt in a variety of ways. Our lungs are crucial in fueling our bodies with oxygen to sustain us, and we breathe around 2,000 gallons of air a day. As the lungs are one of the only internal organs that are exposed to the external environment, it's crucial to keep your respiratory system healthy in order to improve your quality of life and help you live longer. Healthy Lung Month is all throughout October, and with Respiratory Care week happening now, this creates an opportunity to learn more about respiratory health issues that can commonly affect seniors.

Common Respiratory Illnesses and Diseases

Pneumonia: Pneumonia is a lung disease caused by an infection in the air sacs in the lungs. The infections can be bacterial, viral or fungal. The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so preventing the flu by getting your flu shot annually is a good way to reduce your risk of pneumonia.

Lung Cancer: The American Cancer Society states that lung cancer is the leading cancer among both men and women in the U.S. Smoking tobacco is the predominant cause of lung cancer, taking about 80% of lung cancer diagnosis annually, although many cases are caused by exposure to secondhand smoke or individuals who are genetically predisposed to developing cancer.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): COPD is an umbrella term for a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. The two most common types of COPD are emphysema and bronchitis. Most people with COPD have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis; however, each type can vary in severity from person to person.

Asthma: Asthma is a disease of increased responsiveness or twitchiness of the airways in response to allergens and irritants that cause obstruction of the airways. In the U.S. alone, more than two million seniors have asthma.

External Respiratory Exposures- Indoor Air Pollutants

Poor indoor air quality is a determinant that can contribute to an increased risk of infections, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases like asthma. While smoking is the leading cause of any type of respiratory ailment, individuals who are non-smokers can develop respiratory diseases due to contact with several types of indoor air pollutants. This can include:

Asbestos: Asbestos is a fibrous material that was used in thousands of building and consumer products throughout the 20th century. Worn down asbestos products can release microscopic fibers which become airborne and inhaled. This can cause lung irritation and inflammation within the lungs, developing into diseases such mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

Dust Mites: While seemingly harmless, dust mites actually create some of the most common indoor allergens that can trigger allergic reactions and asthma in people. Dust mites are miniscule, insect-like pests which create allergens from their fecal pellets and body fragments. Dust mites are nearly everywhere; roughly four out of five homes in the United States have detectable levels of dust mite allergen in at least one bed.

Mold and Dampness: Dampness can show up as visible moisture, including leaks or as high humidity. Dampness in homes and buildings creates the perfect environment for mold spores to grow. Dampness can encourage the growth of dust mites, mold, and bacteria, all of which can trigger asthma attacks and related respiratory issues.

Preventive Measures

Individuals can expect to feel the effects of weaker lungs as they continue to grow older. As our bones change shape and become less resilient with age, the rib cage contracts so our lungs are unable to expand as much when we breathe in. While this is a completely natural part of the aging process, there are steps older adults can take to better preserve their respiratory health:

Get Frequent Checkups: For most illnesses, early diagnosis and implementing treatment plans can significantly change the outcome of a patient with a respiratory disease. Regularly seeing your doctor and addressing any health issues that arise is a substantial preventive measure, as well as ensuring peace of mind for individuals.


Quit Smoking: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable illness, and even just a year after quitting smoking, the risk of heart and respiratory diseases significantly drops.


Home Cleanliness and Safety: Ensuring that your home is cleaned and sanitized routinely will alleviate allergens from creating debilitating respiratory issues. This can eliminate any virus and bacteria growth within your living spaces. Similarly, having a certified professional vet your home annually for toxins such as mold damage and asbestos can ensure peace of mind.


Exercise and Move: Staying physically active will help strengthen the lungs and reduce the effects of respiratory illnesses. As you sit or lie down for long periods of time, mucus collects, increasing the chance of developing a lung infection. Moving around is especially helpful after you’ve been sick or had surgery. A short 30 minute walk everyday can strengthen muscles, improve balance and coordination, and stimulate healthy lungs.