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COPD Health Center

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More Women Than Men Die From COPD

Researchers Say the Lung Disease Is on the Rise Among Women

COPD: Men vs. Women continued...

Her team looked at, among other data sources, two large surveys, the National Health Interview Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The researchers found:

  • Death rates from COPD differ by sex. Beginning in 2000, annual deaths of women from COPD surpassed those of men in the U.S.
  • Symptoms tend to differ by sex. Women were more likely to report severe shortness of breath than were the men, even with fewer years of smoking, but reported similar degrees of cough.
  • Women may be more susceptible than men to tobacco smoke. Cigarette smoking is the primary risk factor for the disease, although air pollution, secondhand smoke and heredity can contribute. "Women may also have a harder time quitting," Han tells WebMD. Exactly why isn't certain, she adds. If the gender susceptibility holds true, she says, "Smoking cessation, while it may be harder for women, may be even more important [in preventing or minimizing the disease.]"
  • Women are less likely to be diagnosed with COPD promptly or offered appropriate tests. In research that investigated whether doctors show bias against diagnosing the disease in women, COPD was given as the most probable diagnosis much more often for males than females (64% vs. 49%) Han found. In a survey of COPD patients, women were less likely than men to have been offered breathing function tests.

Second Opinion

Another expert who has studied gender differences in COPD agrees with Han's contention that the stereotype of COPD is outdated. "It is no longer accurate to say this is [primarily] a disease of elderly men," says Susan Kennedy, PhD, MSc, professor of environmental health at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," she says. Among them: "Are women more susceptible to dirty air, primarily cigarette smoke?"

"There is some intriguing evidence that postmenopausal women may have a different way of metabolizing the contaminants in dirty air," she says.

Take-Home Message for Women

For women, Kennedy says, the message is clear: "If they have difficulty breathing, regardless of whether they are [or have been] a smoker or not, they should see their doctor and ask for breathing tests to be done. Doctors are less likely to diagnose COPD in women than in men and are less likely to order breathing tests."

Occupational and environmental exposures can contribute, too, Kennedy says. "We also tend to make the mistake that only men have this kind of exposures." But there is growing evidence that things such as cleaning products and other contaminants that are used predominantly in jobs done by women can play a role, too, she says.

Smoking cessation, of course, is crucial, says Han.

Several co-authors, but not Han, report receiving fees for research, speaking, and consulting from pharmaceutical companies.

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