The chronic lung disease is more common among women than men.

By Sarah Klein
April 18, 2018

Former First Lady Barbara Bush died yesterday at age 92, following an earlier announcement that she was in poor health and would not seek more medical care.

She reportedly had been living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a term used to refer to a group of diseases that damage the lungs and make breathing difficult. COPD includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and some cases of asthma. It is considered the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 15.7 million Americans are diagnosed with COPD, and half of people with low lung function are thought to have COPD but not know it, according to the CDC, which means that the true number of Americans living with COPD may be much higher.

While it’s a disease primarily seen in older adults and current or former smokers, here’s what everyone should know about COPD.

COPD is usually caused by smoking, but not always

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) pinpoints cigarette smoking as the leading cause of COPD but estimates that up to 25% of people with COPD never picked up a cigarette. Bush herself started smoking when she was 18 and quit in 1968, as she detailed in her 2015 memoir.

But other lung irritants, including air pollution and secondhand smoke, can also cause COPD, as can a rare genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Women are also more likely to have COPD than men.

COPD symptoms are common

COPD symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and a feeling of tightness in the chest—common enough signs that might be chalked up to a cold, a cough, asthma, or simply being out of shape.

But it’s important not to brush these signs under the rug. For the best prognosis, you'll want to get started early with treatment, which usually includes inhalers, steroids, and/or medications called bronchodilators that relax the airways. COPD treatment can slow down the progression of the disease, which otherwise worsens over time through four stages: mild, moderate, severe, and very severe.

RELATED: 15 COPD Symptoms You Should Know

COPD doesn’t just affect the lungs

Bush was also living with congestive heart failure, which means her heart was struggling to pump enough blood throughout her body. COPD can lead to high blood pressure, which can in turn increase a person’s risk of heart disease. People with COPD are also more likely to have arthritis, depression, and memory loss, according to the CDC.

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It’s never too late to quit smoking

Giving up the habit can help prevent COPD from developing in the first place. But even if you’ve already been diagnosed, it's a smart idea to quit: It can help keep symptoms at bay and slow the progression of the disease. People who stop smoking, exercise, and eat well with COPD will breathe more easily and feel better overall, according to the NHLBI.