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More Women Than Men Die From COPD

Researchers Say the Lung Disease Is on the Rise Among Women
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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 review.

"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 Medicine.

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 addressed.

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.

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