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COPD Rates May Rise as Population Ages

Researchers Say Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Will Become 3rd or 4th Leading Cause of Death
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 30, 2007 - The worldwide burden of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is far greater than has previously been recognized, and it will increase over the next few decades as the world population ages.

As many as 10% of adults aged 40 and older across the globe are believed to have moderate to severe COPD, with rates more than double that among the elderly, according to the most comprehensive studies of COPD prevalence reported to date.

COPD kills 2.5 million people a year, according to World Health Organization estimates. It is currently the fifth leading cause of death in high-income countries like the U.S.

"It is expected to be the third or fourth leading cause of death by the year 2020, but this epidemic is being completely ignored," respiratory disease specialist Emiel Wouters, MD, PhD tells WebMD. "COPD is too often dismissed as a self-inflicted disease of the old, when it needs to be thought of as a treatable condition that is global."

COPD includes the lung diseases emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD makes breathing more difficult and can worsen over time.

Smoking and Other COPD Causes

Respiratory infections and environmental and occupational exposures are among the risk factors for the development of COPD.

But tobacco use and aging remain the major risk factors for the disease, with smoking playing a role in about three out of four COPD deaths in high-income countries like the U.S., according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The researchers concluded that the aging population coupled with better treatments for other age-related diseases will lead to even higher rates of COPD in years to come.

"In looking to the future, we cannot ignore the changing demographics of the world's population and the reality that COPD is a disease of aging," researchers David M. Mannino, MD, and A. Sonia Buist, MD, wrote in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal The Lancet.

"Furthermore, if every smoker in the world were to stop smoking today, the rates of COPD would probably continue to increase for the next 20 years."

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