By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We frequently hear about the top two causes of death in the US—heart disease and cancer. Hardly a doctor exists that doesn’t screen for them, treat them, and encourage their prevention.
But comparatively speaking, we don’t hear much about the third leading cause of death: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is a shame because according to government stats, 12 million American adults are diagnosed with and 120,000 die from COPD every year. Another 12 million are thought to have undiagnosed COPD. So it’s extremely common, yet rarely discussed.
What Is COPD?
COPD is a progressive condition that makes it hard to breathe. It’s actually an umbrella term that encompasses a few major lung diseases—chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Those with COPD experience coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. COPD symptoms typically start in the 40s and 50s and get worse over time.
The leading cause of COPD is smoking, accounting for about 80 percent of cases. But not all smokers develop COPD…and what about the other 20 percent who never smoked and still develop the condition? These situations suggest that genetic factors and/or long-term exposure to irritants like air pollution and chemical fumes may also play a role.
Although there is no cure for COPD, treatments do exist to help lessen the effects. But as with all diseases, prevention is far easier than treatment. You need to be proactive when it comes to your health, and taking care of your lungs is no exception.
By and far, the most important thing you can do to prevent COPD is to not smoke. If you do, quit. Continuing to smoke can cause COPD to progress much more quickly than if you were to stop. You also should make sure your environment is smoke-free. Avoid the company of smokers and don’t go to establishments where smoking is allowed.
But as I mentioned, nonsmokers are not immune to COPD, which means some other kind of environmental air pollution possibly contributes to this condition. You see, our lungs are exposed to small amounts of airborne toxins and contaminants every day. Over time, this consistent exposure can really start to take a toll, often unknowingly and without warning.
According to a 2006 report, “epidemiological studies suggest that air pollution plays a remarkable role in the exacerbation and in the pathogenesis of chronic respiratory diseases” such as COPD.
And the conclusion of a more recent study was that, despite limited data, “outdoor air pollution (such as ambient air pollution or traffic-related air pollution) and indoor air pollution (such as second-hand smoking and biomass fuel combustion exposure) are associated with the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)…”
This problem doesn’t discriminate by class or status, either. The authors of a 2008 paper wrote, “While active cigarette smoking is the most important preventable risk factor globally, outdoor and indoor air pollutants can cause or exacerbate COPD. In high-income countries, historic air pollution events provide clear evidence that exposure to high levels of outdoor air pollutants is associated with increased mortality and morbidity due to COPD and related cardiorespiratory diseases…Populations in low-income countries are largely exposed to indoor air pollutants from the combustion of solid fuels, which contributes significantly to the burden of COPD-related diseases…”
Fortunately, there is one very simple thing I encourage everyone to do to lower risk of COPD: Use an air filter/purifier. This is especially important if you live in an area with high industrialization or smog.
I have an air filter/purifier in my bedroom. My wife Jan and I use it while we’re sleeping, when the body repairs and rejuvenates from all the assaults thrown at it during the day. (In fact, my wife Jan brings an air filter everywhere we go. She likes it because it drowns out my snoring, but I like the fact that the air in our hotel room becomes cleaner and safer to breathe.)
Good quality air filters and purifiers can remove up to 99 percent of the pollutants in your home—everything from thick, dense to low-micron particles, as well as gases, viruses, dangerous bacteria, dust mites, fungi, mold, pollen, animal dander, and other allergens. Be sure you buy a true HEPA filter (not “HEPA-like”) for best protection.
Certain nutrients also defend against airborne toxins. Beta-carotene is one—take 7,500–10,000 IU daily. And vitamin E (200 IU mixed tocopherols) shields against certain toxins, particularly car emissions and ozone. (Every time I drive through a tollbooth, I’m seriously tempted to slip the toll collectors some vitamin E to safeguard their lungs!). Fish oil and olive oil are also protective.
Sadly, we live in a world full of pollution and toxic compounds. We can’t avoid all pollution all the time. But these steps can offer a solid layer of protection that can keep your lungs—and entire body—healthier in the long run.
- National Institutes of Health. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
- Viegi G, et al. Epidemiology of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: health effects of air pollution. Respirology. 2006 Sep;11(5):523-32.
- Ko FW, Hui DS. Air pollution and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Respirology. 2012 Apr;17(3):395-401.
- Liu Y, et al. Outdoor and indoor air pollution and COPD-related diseases in high- and low-income countries. Int J Tuber Lung Dis. 2008 Feb;12(2):115-27.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.