Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — COPD for short — is an umbrella term that describes a number of different lung diseases that all, as the name suggest, chronically obstruct patients' airflow, making breathing hard. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two more common ones, but refractory asthma and certain kinds of bronchiectasis also fall into the category of COPD.
How many people around the world have COPD?
On a planetary level, over 250 million people are believed to be in the moderate to severe stages of COPD. If you've formed the impression that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a chronic health problem that may impact your life but won't kill you, you're mistaken, as more than three million COPD patients succumbed to the disease in 2015 alone. This number represents five percent of total deaths, a percentage that may go up in the future.
COPD in the United States
Cancer and heart disease are the most frequent causes of death in the United States, but COPD takes the bronze as it's in third place, and COPD-related healthcare expenses total over $30 billion dollars annually.
While not everyone with COPD will know they have the disease as symptoms can easily be dismissed in the very earliest stages, over six percent of the US populated is currently believed to have COPD. People living in the south east and mid west are more likely than others to fall victim to the disease.
Of the around 15 million diagnosed patients in the US:
- Approximately 10 million have chronic bronchitis, making this disease the most prevalent of the unfortunate COPD "family".
- Roughly five million COPD patients have emphysema.
There could be, according to estimates, up to 12 million more undiagnosed cases out there.
The statistical story of chronic bronchitis and emphysema
Did you know that women have more than double the risk of developing chronic bronchitis than men? Stats from 2011 showed that, while 6.8 million members of the female sex had this form of COPD, a relatively lower 3.3 million men did. Men, meanwhile, used to be more prone to emphysema, but that's not the case now. While a fairly shocking 2.1 million males had emphysema in 2011, 2.6 million women were diagnosed with it. Over 90 percent of all emphysema cases were diagnosed in people over the age of 45.
How age affects your risk of COPD
The very first symptoms of COPD — a cough that won't budge, increased sputum production, and wheezing — usually show up in a person's forties. People over 60 are more likely to be disabled by COPD, however, that is, to be so affected by the disease that their daily functioning is severely impaired. The most common symptoms are:
- The "unholy trinity" of chronic cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing
- Involuntary weight loss
- In more severe cases, headaches, swelling, mental confusion, and bloating
How gender impacts your risk of COPD
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease used to primarily affect men — most likely because they smoked in higher numbers and had a higher risk of being exposed to toxins at work. This is no longer true, as women are now diagnosed with COPD at about the same rate as men. To take the US as an example:
- COPD diagnoses in women have gone up by over 60 percent in the last decade.
- Empysema diagnoses have risen 60 percent among women as well during this time, while US women are now actually twice as likely to have chronic bronchitis than their male counterparts.
- Women are more likely to die from COPD than men, too.
Smoking: The leading risk factor for COPD
Smoking tobacco is the leading cause of COPD in high and middle income countries — "industrialized nations", if you will. If you're still smoking but don't have COPD yet, pay attention here! Nine in every 10 COPD patients will have lung damage from their nicotine habit, and 20 percent of smokers will wind up with a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in their lifetime. Never-smokers can develop COPD (though only a relatively small 15 percent of patients have never been smokers), but smokers with COPD have 12 times the risk of dying from the disease.
Environmental factors can give you COPD, too
Both smokers and non-smokers can be exposed to environmental pollution and toxic fumes and dusts at work. These factors are responsible for one in every five cases of COPD in the United States, while environmental factors are the identified culprit of nearly a third of COPD cases in people who have never smoked. Even indoor pollution, caused by volatile organic compounds, can lead to COPD.
COPD: Your genetics matter, too
People with a family history of COPD or lung problems in general are more likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease themselves. If you have an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, you're at a higher risk of being diagnosed with COPD when you are still young. Genetic conditions that increase the risk of COPD (specifically emphysema) are responsible for around three percent of total COPD cases in the US, but this small percentage still represents approximately 100,000 patients.
COPD and geography
Different causes of COPD are more prevalent in different countries. While smoking is more likely to lead to COPD in industrialized nations, indoor pollution caused by the use of some fuel types is more likely to be to blame in countries with lower incomes. This holds true in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and children and women are especially at risk in these cases.
The country you live in also affects your risk of dying from COPD — over 90 percent of people who die from COPD-related causes live in low or middle income nations.
What else should you know?
- Other lung diseases and a history of respiratory infections can increase your risk of COPD — around a quarter of all COPD patients also have asthma.
- Your ethnicity and socioeconomic status also play a role — Caucasians, unemployed, retired, disabled, and divorced or widowed people are more likely to develop COPD than other groups in the United States, government data suggests.