8 Serious Respiratory Diseases that can Strike Seniors

breathing issues

The feeling of being unable to breathe easily can be quite disconcerting. Fortunately, most of us deal with this only on a temporary basis, such as when we have a bad cold. You know it’s going to be a miserable few days, but that’s all – a few days – and then you will be back to breathing normally and easily again. But for many seniors, respiratory diseases can become serious issues as they get older.

About 15% of the middle-aged and older population has some sort of lung disease; that’s about one in seven people, according to WebMD. And while some of those individuals have only mild problems, more than one-third report moderate or severe symptoms[1].

Over the last 40 years, the problems with respiratory diseases have gotten worse. Princeton Health Care Center notes that from 1980 to 2014, chronic respiratory disorders were the cause of death for more than 4.6 million Americans. In 1980, there were about 41 deaths for every 100,000 people, but by 2014 the number rose by 31% to nearly 53 out of every 100,000 people[2]. A study in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that chronic lower respiratory tract diseases are the third leading cause of death among those aged 65 and older.

Knowledge is power, and the more you know about a particular disease, the better you might be at seeing the symptoms early and following a good treatment plan. As with choosing to wear a medical alert system, consider reading this article a sort of defense against respiratory diseases.

Common Respiratory Ailments Among Seniors

These are some of the most common respiratory problems older adults may encounter[3]. The good news is that some of these can be lessened by lifestyle changes, while others have good treatments available. 

1.       Asthma

This is one of the most common respiratory diseases, which is why it’s at the top of this list. Though it usually begins in childhood, adult onset asthma can hit those in their 60s or even older. Since about half of those who have asthma also suffer from allergies, WebMD suggests that the culprit for adult-onset asthma might be workplace irritants or other environmental factors. An asthma attack occurs when the airways become inflamed and make breathing difficult.

The most common symptoms include a tight chest, difficulty breathing, wheezing, and a dry cough. Symptoms might occur suddenly as a reaction to pollen, smoke, or some other trigger.

Those who have asthma can control or even resolve it with the proper treatment, so it’s vitally important to get medical assistance right away if you suffer from an episode of breathing difficulties. If this happens to you, please don’t hesitate – use your medical alert pendant, watch, or wristband to call for help immediately.

2.       Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is actually a variety of diseases. COPD is the term assigned to diseases that damage the lungs and prevent a person from exhaling normally. The result is shortness of breath, becoming winded when performing any physical activity, and a strong cough that often produces phlegm. This cough is usually much worse in the morning hours.

It’s often associated with smokers. But any sort of air pollution, including other types of smoke, can cause COPD over time. This takes years to develop, and unfortunately, it is often mistaken for part of the natural aging process. That difficulty in diagnosing COPD can have consequences that are irreversible and deadly-- of the deaths from respiratory illnesses, COPD accounts for 85% of them[4].

3.       Bronchitis: Acute and Chronic

There are two types of bronchitis. Acute bronchitis is a bacterial or viral infection that can be treated and cured. In most cases, acute bronchitis is temporary. Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD that continues to worsen over the years.

The symptoms of both are the same, including a wet, productive cough that is usually worse in the morning. That cough comes from the excess mucus that forms in the airways. Though those who are smokers are much more prone to this type of bronchitis, it can also be caused by other contaminants in the air.

The symptoms of acute bronchitis can come on suddenly. As with any other breathing issue, never hesitate to use your medical alert watch or pendant to call for help if you have trouble breathing. Remember that with proper treatment, you can be okay – but you have to get that treatment fast.

4.       Emphysema

This disease attacks the airways and the air sacs in the lungs. Known as aveoli, these air sacs can’t repair themselves from contaminant exposure, and eventually the damage becomes severe enough that it becomes difficult or impossible to exhale.

The good news is that emphysema is usually preventable, as it occurs mostly as a result of smoking (though other contaminants might play a role). The bad news is that it’s not curable. It takes many years to develop, so it’s recommended that smokers quit as soon as they possibly can.

5.       Cystic Fibrosis

Though you are probably familiar with cystic fibrosis as something that is diagnosed in small children, about 25% of cases go undiagnosed. The symptoms include poor growth as a youngster, a chronic cough, frequent lung infections, and interestingly, skin that tastes rather salty. The poor growth often occurs because the mucus created by the disease can obstruct the pancreas, and that leads to issues with nutrition.

It’s a genetic condition that fills the airways with mucus. That mucus isn’t like what you find with the common cold or other temporary condition; instead, it’s sticky and thick, and can cling to the lungs. This leads to recurring infections in the lungs, and the difficulty of clearing the lungs of mucus makes those infections especially dangerous.

Though cystic fibrosis can’t be cured, there are treatments that can make the situation much more tolerable and allow for a longer, healthier life.

6.       Tuberculosis

There’s a reason why your doctor might want to test for tuberculosis on a regular basis-- it’s a highly contagious disease that can be deadly if it spreads outside of the lungs. It’s a form of pneumonia caused by exposure to a certain bacteria. Symptoms start with a general feeling of illness, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. The bacteria in the lungs can cause coughing and chest pain. The situation can progress until you are coughing up blood[5].

There was a time when tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the United States. But today, most cases of tuberculosis can be cured with a heavy course of antibiotics over a period of six to nine months.

7.       Lung Cancer

This form of cancer can take years to develop. It starts in any part of the lungs and is often caused by a DNA mutation that causes the cells to multiple uncontrollably. It is often diagnosed late, when the disease has already spread to other parts of the body, mostly because the symptoms are subtle at first. These can include a chronic cough, wheezing, a change in the sound of your voice, and eventually, coughing up blood.

There are some suspected causes for lung cancer, including exposure to certain contaminants, like diesel exhaust, asbestos, radon, or radiation. It can also be caused by smoking or by exposure to secondhand smoke. But in many cases, the cause can’t be determined.

According to the CDC, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, making up 23% of all deaths from cancer.

8.       Pneumonia

This is a very common illness caused by a virus, bacteria, or fungus. It can cause the lungs to fill up with fluid, which makes it tough to breathe. You might experience shortness of breath, fever, chills, and a chronic, painful cough that is productive. Keep in mind that pneumonia can quickly overwhelm your body and become fatal if you don’t seek treatment as soon as you notice the symptoms.

Those over the age of 65 are especially prone to develop pneumonia. That’s why it’s vitally important to get a pneumonia vaccine on a recommended timetable, as well as get flu shots – the flu can easily lead to pneumonia.

Other Respiratory Problems

There are other respiratory problems that are just as dangerous but not as common as those listed above.

·         Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. This disease is one of the leading complications among those who develop serious illnesses, such as COVID-19. It’s progressive, life-threatening lung damage that comes on very suddenly and can lead to the requiring a ventilator to breathe. This is much more common among older individuals; currently, eight of every 10 deaths from COVID-19 are among those aged 65 and older[6].

·         Pulmonary Edema. This occurs when fluid leaks from the blood vessels between the alveoli. The pressure from the fluid makes it tough to breathe.  It can be caused by an injury or by heart failure.

·         Pulmonary Embolism. This occurs when a blood clot breaks off and travels to the heart, then lodges in the pulmonary arteries in the lungs. The result is shortness of breath and a lack of oxygen to the body. This might show very few symptoms or might cause sudden pain and difficulty in breathing. If you have these symptoms, immediately press your button alarm to get assistance right away.

·         Pleural Effusion. There is a space between the lungs and the rest of the organs in your chest, known as the pleural space. That space can fill with fluid and make breathing difficult. There might also be increasing chest pain. It can be caused by a wide variety of issues, including pneumonia, cancer, heart failure, or even a pulmonary embolism.

·         Pulmonary Hypertension. This disease can cause high blood pressure. The symptoms of it worsen over time and can include shortness of breath (especially during activity), fatigue, chest pains, and ankle swelling. It might be a genetic condition, but it might also be caused by heart failure, substance abuse, sleep apnea, blood clots, and more.

·         Interstitial Lung Disease. This affects the lining between the alveoli. Over time the lining becomes hardened, inflamed, and scarred. The result is a dry cough, fatigue, weight loss, shortness of breath, and trouble with physical activity. It might be caused by genetics, health disorders, or breathing in harmful substances.

Finally, pneumoconiosis is a lung disease caused by inhaling something foreign, such as coal dust, asbestos, or silica dust. It might also show up in those who work with aluminum, barium, graphite, iron, kaolin, mica, talc, antimony, or other airborne particulates. Thus, it’s more common among those who work in factories and coal mines. There might be no symptoms at first, but in the later stages, there is a significant breathing impairment and an inability to perform physical activities. This disease often leads to death. 

If Breathing Becomes Difficult, Use Your Medical Alert Device

It cannot be stressed enough: Sudden shortness of breath, chest pain, and other physical symptoms that come on suddenly must be addressed immediately. If you begin to feel any of these frightening symptoms, turn to your emergency response solution from Alert1. Press the button to be connected to our Command Center within seconds. The professional on the line will speak with you to determine the problem and send you the assistance you need, then stay on the line with you until that help arrives. Don’t hesitate to press that button; when breathing becomes difficult, it could quickly become a life-threatening situation.

As always, Alert1 wishes you health and safety!