COPD Disparities Put Women in the Spotlight

Did you know that women are 37 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than men and now account for more than half of all deaths attributed to COPD in our nation? More than seven million women in the United States currently have COPD, and millions more have symptoms but have not been diagnosed.

COPD is a progressive disease that slowly makes it harder to breathe. It is the third largest cause of death in our country, and you don't have to have been a smoker to be at risk. COPD has long been considered a disease of older white men, so doctors don't expect to see COPD in women and often miss the diagnosis. Doctors do expect to find asthma in women, which has similar symptoms, so women are frequently misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed and their COPD symptoms go untreated.

Women with COPD have more frequent symptom flare-ups than men and an overall lower quality of life. Biologically, women's lungs are simply more vulnerable than men's to cigarette smoke and other pollutants, so they are more susceptible to developing COPD. Deaths from COPD among women have more than quadrupled since 1980, and since 2000 more women than men have died from COPD each year.

COPD is diagnosed with a spirometry test, which measures lung function—specifically the volume and speed of air that one can inhale and exhale. Unfortunately, spirometry is not widely used in primary care and women are less likely to be offered a spirometry test by their doctors than are men with the same symptoms and smoking history.

If you feel you or a loved one are at risk for COPD, there are some steps you can take to be proactive. First, if you still smoke, quit. Quitting smoking has more positive impact on your health and disease progression than any other type of treatment, and women have actually been shown to benefit more from quitting smoking than men. For quit smoking resources, visit www.lung.org/stop-smoking.

Next, protect the health of your lungs now by getting a flu shot. Use our Flu Vaccine Finder to find a flu shot provider close to you.

Finally, communicate your COPD concerns with your doctor and discuss getting a spirometry test. Do not expect your doctor to automatically recommend testing based on your symptoms and smoking history; be your own health advocate. COPD research is underfunded, and the disease is mostly omitted from public health budgets and program planning because of lack of awareness. We can all be advocates by talking to our doctors and sharing the information about these gender-based disparities with our friends and family.

For questions about COPD or other lung health issues including lung cancer, asthma, and quitting smoking, contact the American Lung Association's free Lung HelpLine (1-800-LUNGUSA). Help is always free, calls are unlimited, and you will be assisted by a trained specialist in nursing, respiratory therapy or smoking cessation.

As Lung Health Manager for the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific, author Allison Moroni focuses on community outreach and education about lung disease and improving access to care and support for people living with lung diseases such as asthma, COPD and lung cancer. For more information, contact Allison at amoroni@lungmtpacific.org or 206-512-3294.