1 in 9 Young Adults at Risk for COPD

Smoking Linked to Rising Rates of Lung Disease

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 28, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 28, 2004 -- As many as one in nine young adults living in industrialized countries is at risk for developing a deadly lung condition known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A new study shows that initial symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, such as persistent cough and phlegm, develop much earlier than is usually thought, and a growing number of young adults may already be on their way to developing irreversible COPD later in life.

COPD is an umbrella term that describes a progressive reduction of airflow in and out of the lungs caused by bronchitis and emphysema. Smoking is the major cause of the disease.

COPD Symptoms Start Early

Researchers say the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) criteria stages COPD from mild (stage I) to severe (stage IV). But they also describe a preclinical stage of COPD (stage 0) that can be used to identify people at greatest risk of developing the disease in their 50s and 60s, which is when it is most often diagnosed.

In this study, published in the current issue of Thorax, researchers surveyed more than 18,000 adults aged 20-44 in Europe, the U.S., Scandinavia, Australia, and New Zealand about early COPD symptoms.

They found about 4% fell into COPD stages I-IV based on their reported symptoms. But nearly 12% were classified as stage 0 or at risk for COPD in later life.

The number of young adults who were at risk for COPD varied greatly by country, from a low of 7% in Australia to almost 24% in Spain.

People who were in stages 0-III also shared some common characteristics. They were more likely to:

  • Be moderate to heavy smokers
  • Have been exposed to greater levels of noxious fumes or dust at work
  • Have had more respiratory infections during childhood
  • Be poorer than those with healthy lungs
  • Use health-care services more frequently

Researchers say the finding shows that a considerable portion of young adults already suffer from COPD symptoms, and those at stage 0 had the same risk factors as those in later stages of the irreversible disease.