To understand common breathing problems in older adults, it’s important to first understand how lungs work and why they’re so important. Lungs play two key roles in our health and overall body function. The first role involves getting oxygen into the body, which occurs when we breathe in air. The second is the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the body; the body creates CO2 as it uses oxygen and is then exhaled from our lungs.
More specifically, as you breathe in air, it fills tiny air sacs located in your lungs. Because there are tiny blood vessels in these air sacs, blood circulates around them, with oxygen crossing into the bloodstream through this mechanism. This also is where carbon dioxide is returned from the bloodstream into the lungs so it can be breathed out. This second function is as crucial as the first because having too much CO2 in the bloodstream — not exhaled out — can cause a wide range of health problems.
Age-Related Lung Changes
As you age, it’s normal to notice a gradual decline in lung function, such as a decrease in the maximum amount of air that you can breathe out after you inhale as much air as you can. Here’s why that happens. As you age, bones thin and change shape, which can affect the shape of your rib cage. This causes a reduction in rib cage expansion potential.
In addition, respiratory muscles (the diaphragm) can weaken, making it difficult to keep the airway totally open. Air sacs can become baggy, as well, plus lung defense mechanisms can decline, making older adults more susceptible to pneumonia. Breathing problems can be exacerbated by:
- Lifestyle issues, such as the “destructive effects of smoking”
- Age-related decreases in heart function
If you’re healthy, though, typical age-related lung changes seldom lead to actual symptoms, although you may notice a lesser ability to participate in intense aerobic exercises. Being slightly winded may indicate a need for more physical activity, whereas “incapacitating shortness of breath, chest discomfort, wheezing, and coughing . . . should not be considered a normal part of aging.”
Protecting Your Lungs
To help prevent significant breathing problems, here are three crucial strategies:
Do not smoke. This speeds up the aging of your lungs and harms them. If you are smoking, get help to stop.
Exercise. This improves lung function. In addition, try these breathing exercises.
Move! As you sit or lie down for long periods of time, mucus collects, increasing the chance of your getting a lung infection. This happens most often when have been ill or had surgery.
It is also helpful to take excellent care of your health, overall, regularly seeing your doctor and addressing other health issues that arise. Talk to your doctor about flu and pneumonia immunization, among other topics.
Medical issues that can lead to breathing problems can be caused by something as common as colds, allergies and other sinus problems, or heartburn or anemia. More significant causes include (but are not limited to):
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Pulmonary emphysema
- Chronic bronchitis
- Heart failure
- Neurological disorders, including strokes
When to Get Help
Get help immediately with one of these symptoms:
- Sudden onset of severe shortness of breath
- Sudden chest pain
- A fever of 100 degrees or higher with or without a cough
Call medical professionals during office hours with one of these symptoms:
- Increased shortness of breath during activity
- Coughing that brings up blood
- Changes in breathing during sleep
- Swallowing problems