If you take good care of your lungs, they can last a lifetime. “The lungs are very durable if they’re not attacked from the outside,” says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association (ALA). With a few exceptions, your lungs don’t get into trouble unless you get them into trouble, he says.
However, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Here are 12 things you can do to keep your lungs healthy as you age.
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Smoking is, hands down, the worst thing you can do to your lungs on a regular basis.
There’s no safe threshold when it comes to smoking, Dr. Edelman says; the more you smoke, the greater your risk of lung cancer and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Secondhand smoke is harmful, too, and there’s mounting evidence that even thirdhand smokeor just being in an environment where people have smokedis dangerous.
It’s not enough to skip only cigarettes. Pipes, cigars, or marijuana can harm lungs too.
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Fight for clean air
While U.S. air is cleaner than in the past, more than 154 million Americans still live in areas where air pollution is a threat to health, according to the ALA’s annual State of the Air report.
"Air pollution can not only make diseases like COPD and asthma worse, [but] it can also kill people," Dr. Edelman says. You can make a difference by supporting clean air laws and opposing efforts to cut regulation.
On the individual level, cut your electricity use, drive less, and avoid burning wood or trash.
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Exercise in itself won’t make your lungs stronger, Dr. Edelman says, but it will help you get more out of them.
The better your cardiorespiratory fitness, the easier it is for your lungs to keep your heart and muscles supplied with oxygen. Regular exercise is particularly important if you have chronic lung disease; your lungs need all the help they can get.
If cold air triggers your asthma symptoms, use a scarf or face mask to warm the air before it hits your lungs.
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Beware of outdoor air pollution
In some areas, especially in the summer, ozone and other pollutants can make working out or even spending time outdoors an unhealthy proposition.
People with a lung disease are particularly sensitive to air pollution. The U.S. government’s AIRNow web site, provides up-to-date information on air quality, as well as an explanation of Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers.
Sign up for EnviroFlash, email alerts on your local air quality.
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Improve indoor air
Air pollution isn’t just an outdoor problem. There are a number of indoor sources, including fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, mold, pet dander, construction materials, and even air fresheners and some candles.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a three-pronged approach: Eliminate sources, improve ventilation, and use air cleaners.
There is evidence that antioxidant-rich foods are good for your lungs. (Research suggests it has to be food, not supplements.)
A 2010 study found that people who consumed the most cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, kale, and more) had almost half the risk of lung cancer compared to those who consumed the least.
"All those nice, leafy green vegetables that have lots of antioxidants do seem to have a protective effect," says Dr. Edelman.
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Protect yourself on the job
Many jobs can put your lungs at risk, from construction work to styling hair. (Here are some of the worst jobs for your lungs.)
In fact, occupational asthma accounts for approximately 15% of cases, says Dr. Edelman.
Potential culprits include dust; particles; diacetyl, a chemical that adds a buttery flavor to food; paint fumes; and diesel exhaust, among others. If your employer provides protective equipment, wear it. If not, Dr. Edelman says, contact your union representative, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or any state or local agency with the same function as OSHA.
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Don’t skimp on shots
Respiratory infections can be particularly devastating if you have COPD or other lung problems. Get the flu shot in time for flu season, and if you’re 65 or older, get the pneumococcal vaccine too.
Also, take steps to avoid infection: Wash your hands frequently, avoid crowds during peak flu season, get plenty of rest, eat well, and keep your stress levels under control, too.
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Stick to safe products
Many at-home activitiescleaning, hobbies, home improvementcan expose your lungs to harmful particles or gases.
Protect yourself by choosing safer products, working in a well-ventilated area, and using a dust mask. (The ALA offers tips for working with fiberglass.)
Avoid oil-based paints, which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and choose water-based paint instead. Cleaning products can contain harmful chemicals too, like VOCs, ammonia, and bleach; read labels before you buy. (The ALA provides suggestions for safer cleaning products.)
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Check for radon
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in the ground. It typically leaks into a house through cracks in the foundation and walls. Radon is the main cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, and the second-leading cause of the disease after smoking.
Get your home tested; if radon levels are between 2 and 4 pCi/L, consider radon reduction. There are no known safe levels of radon, so the lower, the better.
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Know the warning signs
If you have a cough for more than a month, or if you have a hard time breathing with little or no physical exertion, you should see a doctor, according to the ALA.
Wheezing, coughing up blood, or coughing up phlegm for more than a month are also problematic, and if you have chest pain lasting a month or longer, get it checked out, particularly if breathing in or coughing makes it worse.
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Control your condition
If you’ve got asthma or COPD, do your best to keep it under control.
Preventive medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, can cut your risk of asthma attacks, and rescue medications, such as albuterol inhalers, can stop symptoms like coughing or wheezing. Other medications can control COPD.
Know your triggers, and avoid them, if possible. Also do your best to stave off respiratory infections, which can exacerbate both conditions.
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