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COPD Ignored by Doctors and Patients

New Approach Needed in Detecting and Treating Nation's No. 4 Killer: COPD
WebMD Health News

Nov. 6, 2003 (New York) -- The term COPD may not strike fear in the hearts of most Americans like SARS or cancer, but that may soon change if the nation's lung specialists have their way.

"COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., yet it is a disease that very few people know anything about, and it is increasing alarmingly in the U.S. and throughout the world," says A. Sonia Buist, MD, professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

At a time when other major causes of death such as heart disease and cancer are declining, the death rate for COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, has skyrocketed by 163% in the last 30 years, and Buist says a rapid rise in COPD deaths among women is fueling that increase.

In an effort to reverse those disturbing trends, Buist and other COPD experts announced Thursday a new national campaign to increase awareness and detection of COPD among physicians and their patients at a briefing in New York City, sponsored by the American Medical Association.

What Is COPD?

COPD is a term that was introduced in the 1960's. It's an umbrella term for diseases of the lung, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which result in a progressive and abnormal decline in lung function.

Most of the estimated 16 million people in the U.S. with COPD suffer from a combination of these diseases that cause inflammation and destruction within the lungs and make it difficult to breathe.

Smoking causes up to 90% of COPD cases in the U.S., but air pollution is also major contributor it in developing countries.

Researchers say everyone begins to experience a natural decline in the amount of air their lungs can hold (lung capacity) after about age 35. Nonsmokers lose about an average of two tablespoons of lung capacity per year. But smokers lose three to four times of their lung capacity annually, which dramatically increases their risk of death and disability caused by COPD.

Experts say confusion about the variety of terms used to describe the conditions involved in COPD has made it difficult for the public as well as the medical community to understand this very common disease.

In fact, Buist says the symptoms of COPD are often confused with the normal aging process. Those symptoms include:

  • Persistent cough, with increased sputum (phlegm) production
  • Shortness of breath during physical exertion
  • Fatigue
  • Decline in quality of life

Since these changes are gradual, researchers say the majority of people with COPD aren't diagnosed until they are hospitalized, and only about 25% to 50% of those with the disease are aware of it.

By the time most people with COPD do seek medical attention for these symptoms, typically while in their mid-50s, Buist says many have already lost up to half of their lung function.

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