While smoking is a major risk factor, more than 15% of people who develop COPD have never smoked. Specialists like Neil Schachter, MD, a professor of pulmonary medicine and the medical director of the respiratory care department at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, point to pollution, dust, poor air quality, and secondhand smoke as other significant risk factors. Knowing both the risks and symptoms to watch, experts say, can help prevent the disease and slow its progression.
COPD kills more than 100,000 Americans each year, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
If you're in your 20s or 30s
A diagnosis of COPD is rare at this age. “Although we dont see COPD in children, we do realize now that children who have asthma may be at risk of COPD later in life because of the [lung changes] that result from asthma,” explains Dr. Schachter. Whether you think you're at risk or not, people under 40 can reduce their risk of COPD by avoiding cigarette smoke, dust, and pollution.
At this age, there is one especially vulnerable groupthose with a rare genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Only about 100,000 people in the United States have it, but it makes the lungs (and liver) incredibly sensitive to damage and can result in an under-30 diagnosis of COPD (even in otherwise healthy nonsmokers).
The problem is that many people don't know they have the gene until COPD has been diagnosed. However, if you have family members with COPD, you are at greater risk of being a gene carrier.
Bartolome Celli, MD, a professor of medicine in the pulmonary division of the Tufts University School of Medicine, in Boston, recommends that parents with COPD get tested first to check for deficiency; if they have it, their children should get checked. If you have the deficiency, says Dr. Celli, you can help prevent lung problems by avoiding dusty and smoky environments, eating a healthy diet, and getting vaccinations.
Whether you have a genetic predisposition or not, experts agree that the best way to prevent COPD is to avoid smoking, which can set the stage for a COPD diagnosis in your 40s and 50s. Smoking is responsible for about 75% of COPD deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.