More Women Than Men Die From COPD
Researchers Say the Lung Disease Is on the Rise Among Women
Dec. 14, 2007 -- The lung disease known as chronic obstructive pulmonary
disease (COPD) has long been considered more a man's disease
than a woman's disease. Nothing is farther from the truth, according to a new
"COPD is a huge problem in women," says MeiLan Han, MD, MS, an
assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Health System,
Ann Arbor, and director of its Women's Respiratory Health Clinic. She is the
lead author of a clinical commentary on the topic of gender and COPD published
in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care
COPD in women has been on the rise in recent years. More women than men in
the U.S. now die from it each year, she says. Even so, experts have much to
learn about the gender bias surrounding COPD, she says. Doctors may not always
think to give a woman with COPD symptoms the breathing function tests used to help
diagnose it early.
What Is COPD?
COPD is the preferred name for what used to be looked on as two different
diseases -- emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking cigarettes is the main risk factor for getting
the disease. In emphysema, the tiny air sacs in the lung (called alveoli) are
irreversibly damaged. In chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes are inflamed
and eventually scar. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.
According to the American Lung Association 61,000 women and 57,260 men died
of the disease in 2004; about 12 million adults in the U.S. have COPD. Symptoms
include a chronic cough, shortness of breath, frequent clearing of the
throat, and increased production of mucus.
Medications can help relax and open air passages. Other
treatment includes supplementary oxygen therapy.
COPD: Men vs. Women
Han and her colleagues reviewed numerous scientific published studies to
write the commentary, trying to piece together the current understanding of how
COPD affects men and women differently -- and what questions yet need to be
Sex differences in COPD have been suspected for about 20 years, she says,
but experts haven't investigated the information very thoroughly until
recently. Women's increased use of tobacco probably explains part of the rise
in the disease, Han says, but not all.
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
- 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.