NEW ORLEANS, LA — Women are 37 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than men and now account for more than half of all deaths attributed to COPD in our nation. The American Lung Association’s latest health disparity report, “Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women,” examines the nation’s third leading cause of death and its increased prevalence among women in Louisiana and throughout the United States.
More than seven million women in the United States currently have COPD, and millions more have symptoms but have yet to be diagnosed. The number of deaths among women from COPD has more than quadrupled since 1980, and since 2000 the disease has claimed the lives of more women than men in this country each year. In Louisiana, 134,358 women currently have COPD, which is 7.5 percent of the state’s population.
"These numbers may also reflect in part, a correction of gender bias in the diagnosis of COPD,” said Steven Brown, MD, FCCP. “Studies have demonstrated a tendency to diagnosis women with 'asthma' and men with 'COPD' in identical clinical situations."
COPD is a progressive lung disease with no known cure that slowly robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans than COPD does. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, but there are other important causes such as air pollution.
“Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women,” identifies an interplay of risk-factor exposures, biological susceptibility and sociocultural factors contributing to COPD’s disproportionate burden on women.
"COPD has become a major women's health issue, on par with heart disease, breast and ovarian cancer," said Dr. Brown. "The good news is that COPD can be detected quite easily with a few questions, a brief examination, and a painless simple test, called spirometry."
Foremost, the rise of COPD in women is closely tied to tobacco industry marketing. Cigarette smoking was rare among women in the early 20th century, but started increasing in earnest in the late 1960s after the tobacco industry began aggressively targeting its products specifically to women.
While nationwide anti-tobacco campaigns and policy changes have successfully decreased smoking rates for both women and men in the recent past, the tobacco industry’s success in addicting women smokers long ago is still resulting in new cases of COPD and other tobacco-related illness in those women as they have aged.
Other key findings include:
- Since COPD has historically been thought of as a “man’s disease,” women are underdiagnosed and undertreated for COPD.
- Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants.
- Women are especially more vulnerable to COPD before the age of 65.
- Women with COPD have more frequent disease flare-ups—a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms that is often caused by a cold or other lung infection.
- Effective treatment of COPD is complicated, and women don’t always get the kind of care that meets their needs.
- The quality of life for women with COPD is impaired at an earlier age, and is worse overall than that of men with similar severity of disease.
This report is part of the Lung Association’s Disparities in Lung Health Series.