American Lung Association Report: Women at Greater Risk of COPD

Note to Editors: To download the report visit www.lung.org/copdinwomen

Washington, D.C. (June 5, 2013)

Women are 37 percent more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than men and now account for more than half of all deaths attributed to COPD in our nation. The American Lung Association’s latest health disparity report, “Taking Her Breath Away: The Rise of COPD in Women,” examines the nation’s third leading cause of death and its increased prevalence among women in the United States.

More than seven million women in the United States currently have COPD, and millions more have symptoms but have yet to be diagnosed. The number of deaths among women from COPD has more than quadrupled since 1980, and since 2000 the disease has claimed the lives of more women than men in this country each year.

“What we now know is that more women than men in this country are dying from COPD—and nearly half of women currently living with COPD don’t even know they have it,” said MeiLan Han, M.D., medical director, Women’s Respiratory Health Program at the University of Michigan Health System, and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association’s “Taking Her Breath Away” report. “It’s what we do with this knowledge that will help determine the fate of millions. Leadership in public health and health care at the national, state and local levels must urgently confront this deep-rooted and deadly disease head on.”

COPD is a progressive lung disease with no known cure that slowly robs its sufferers of the ability to draw life-sustaining breath. Only heart disease and cancer kill more Americans than COPD does. Smoking is the primary cause of COPD, but there are other important causes such as air pollution.

The report identifies an interplay of risk-factor exposures, biological susceptibility and sociocultural factors contributing to COPD’s disproportionate burden on women.

Foremost, the rise of COPD in women is closely tied to the success of tobacco industry marketing. Cigarette smoking was rare among women in the early 20th century, but started increasing in earnest in the late 1960s after the tobacco industry began aggressively targeting its deadly products specifically to women. While nationwide anti-tobacco campaigns and policy changes have successfully decreased smoking rates for both women and men in the recent past, the tobacco industry’s success in addicting women smokers long ago is still resulting in new cases of COPD and other tobacco-related illness in those women as they have aged.

Other key findings include:

  • Since COPD has historically been thought of as a “man’s disease,” women are underdiagnosed and undertreated for COPD.
  • Women are more vulnerable than men to lung damage from cigarette smoke and other pollutants.
  • Women are especially more vulnerable to COPD before the age of 65.
  • Women with COPD have more frequent disease flare-ups—a sudden worsening of COPD symptoms that is often caused by a cold or other lung infection.  
  • Effective treatment of COPD is complicated, and women don’t always get the kind of care that meets their needs.
  • The quality of life for women with COPD is impaired at an earlier age, and is worse overall than that of men with similar severity of disease.

The American Lung Association calls on government agencies, the research and funding community, insurers and health systems, employers, clinicians, women and their families to take steps now to address this deadly disease. These steps are detailed in the full report, and include the strengthening of the public health response to COPD including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) creating and supporting a comprehensive COPD program similar to what is already in place for other major public health problems; increased investment in gender-specific COPD research; expanded efforts to protect everyone from harmful exposures that cause COPD such as cigarette smoke and outdoor air pollution; and implementation of health care systems changes to improve the timeliness and quality of COPD care.

“It’s time for the millions of women like me who are living with COPD to break their silence and speak out about the toll that COPD is taking on our lives,” said Grace Anne Dorney Koppel, patient and national spokesperson for COPD awareness. “We need to lead the charge for access to adequate disease management services and social support that will empower us to treat the disease as early as possible and improve the quality of our lives.”

This report is part of the Lung Association’s Disparities in Lung Health Series. For more information, please contact Mary Havell McGinty, mary.havell@lung.org. To download a copy of the report, visit: www.lung.org/copdinwomen.

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About the American Lung Association
The American Lung Association is the leading organization working to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease, through research, education and advocacy. The work of the American Lung Association is focused on four strategic imperatives: to defeat lung cancer; to improve the air we breathe; to reduce the burden of lung disease on individuals and their families; and to eliminate tobacco use and tobacco-related diseases.  For more information about the American Lung Association, a holder of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Guide Seal, or to support the work it does, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872) or visit: www.Lung.org.